He glanced up just in time to catch the practiced upward arc of the man’s hand, the snub-nosed pistol in it. He should surely have been caught less off his guard — he had heard that they were doing it all across the city, and had even seen such men standing like bouncers, arms folded, in the doorways to banks and public buildings, the guns in little white holsters at their hips — but somehow the act in this place was so unexpected that he almost flinched away. Childish! Perhaps because he had never associated such things with music, and had had his heart filled with a different kind of anticipation this eve.
It was over in an instant; the dark flat square dropped off and he found himself looking into the face of a man, or what could be read of it over the black facemask stretching banditwise over the man’s nose and mouth. The man said something, but in his lingering state of surprise he could not make out what it was. “I’m sorry?” he asked, proffering an ear.
The man repeated his words with an almost hostile loudness. “You’ll need a facemask, Sir, to enter.”
“But the concert is outside…?”
“Yes, but facemasks are required for entry to all public events.”
Aversion mingled with disappointment. He nodded slowly, smiled a nervous smile, groping for his pockets. He felt a lump in the left: the facemask was crumpled there, of course — the same worn facemask he had used since the beginning of the emergency, a gift from a friend of his back at the start, when these things had been required even to leave one’s house, and yet could be found nowhere, not even in the pharmacies. He had not bothered to purchase another since, had indeed somehow proudly refrained from doing so, though he would not have been able to explain the nature of this strange and surely antisocial reticence. He stretched the by now stained and dust-rimmed piece of bluish fabric over his face, hooking it to his ears, and nodded to the guard, who gestured for him to enter. There seemed nothing friendly in those eyes, but it was difficult to gauge with half the man’s face covered. He wondered how he himself appeared; perhaps he, too, seemed unfriendly. He crinkled his eyes into an unnatural squint that he hoped would express affability. It didn’t matter, anyway: the guard had already turned to his next victim. He sighed — and immediately wished he had not done so, for the air of it caught up in the mask and seemed to stagnate around his mouth. Shaking his head he stepped through the imposing stone arch of the gate, beneath the boughs of the two great oak trees that had been planted there who could say how many decades past.
A longish line had formed before the ticket booth. He fingered the ticket in his pocket; he had purchased it long since, almost the same day the concert had been announced. Great had been his desire to break the silence of these late long months. It was, truth be told, the first time he had really gotten out at all since the pandemic had come down, save as one counted grocery shopping and other mundane errands.
He discerned in passing a number of white pagoda-like tents over to the left of the descending paving stone walkway, glowing in the light from the tall black street lamps, but did not attempt to identify their purpose there. His eyes skittered over the scene. Facemasks everywhere. He must try not to think of it. He was standing just behind an elderly woman garbed in a smooth dress of navy blue, and found himself staring absent-mindedly at her plump and bespeckled neck. The pearls at her nape gleamed beneath the clean bluish silver of her short curling hair, the aseptic white band of the facemask. He sighed again, and once again was sorry for it. His thoughts roved off, as though to refuge.
What was this rising in his heart, he wondered. Somehow, in some unfathomable way, the entire episode at the gate, though it had been simple and swift and even innocent, had deeply troubled him. Stupid, but there it was. What business was it of the guard’s, or anyone else’s, for that matter, whether he was running a fever? He felt a silly protectiveness over those two little digits which he imagined popping up in a field of electric teal before the guard’s eyes. Two numbers, that was all: but two numbers which signaled some aspect of his body, quite as if they belonged to him. It was absurd, of course; it was just another aspect of his external physical being — was it not? A man might read his silhouette or the expression of his face or the color of his skin or its pallor; why not then also his temperature? And yet — he found it invasive and unnerving. Still more this business about the mask. Would he really be forced to wear the thing for the entire concert? He had never liked these masks, not since the beginning; he had always felt stifled behind them, unable to breathe. He knew it was wrong of him; how many doctors had he seen on how many news programs, assuring everyone that they were perfectly safe? And there were countless people who had to wear them all day for work anyway. Who was he to absent himself from their collective sacrifice? Nonetheless, he could not shake the sense of a slow but implacable suffocation with that cloth strapped over his mouth. How could he be carried away by the music with the heat of his own breath on his face, this subdued panic of restriction?
It didn’t matter, he told himself quietly. He would simply take the thing off once he was sitting. It was surely allowed. Hadn’t that been the way of it in the bistro he had visited before the event?
His mind fell back to it, his ridiculous ineptitude. He tried to tell himself that it was not altogether his fault; things had changed so much, after all, and he had simply not gotten out much as of late, what with his studies and everything. Nonetheless, he felt the embarrassment flooding back into his cheeks even now as he reconsidered the events of two hours ago.
He recalled standing in the doorway of the bistro uncertainly, wondering if his mask would be required for entry; but seeing a number of people sitting at tables without their masks, he presumed the negative — not without a small twinge of relief in his heart — and stepped through the doorway. A woman appeared suddenly at the counter, a fattish lady with an air of subdued aggression. Though she was not tall, she was elevated by some invisible platform there and seemed strangely overbearing, and she held before her a hand of flat forbiddance. “Mask, please,” she said coldly, in a slight Southern drawl. He glanced again at the table with the maskless people, as if to renew his prior impressions: their faces were indeed nude — a man’s frowning beard, a woman’s bright lipstick. Perhaps they were relatives of the owner?
He crookedly set the mask to his face. The waitress, without moving from her platform, gestured to a table in the corner, and he scurried over, feeling small and guilty somehow. There was something strangely barren about the table — no table cloth, no napkins, no silverware. He presumed (distracted though he was still by the sense of wrongdoing that dogged his every step these days) that this was due to the lateness of the hour, and wondered suddenly if he was imposing himself on them — though in point of fact it was not so late as that, particularly for a Saturday. Still, these places probably had to close sooner than usual, what with the pandemic… He suddenly noticed, in the midst of these uneasy thoughts, that there was a sort of barcode taped to the center of the table — indeed, there was one on each of the tables there. He stared at it inattentively, only halfway concerned, in his greater preoccupation, with the riddle of those black masses of squares.
The waitress approached the table, notepad in hand, standing stiffly some distance away. She pointed up to her facemask, and he instinctively lifted a hand to his mouth; had he in his haste to cover himself put it on badly…? But, finding it intact, he looked at her in puzzlement, trying exaggerate the scrunch in his brow to make his perplexity evident. “You can take it off now,” she said.
“Ah…! Thanks.” The senselessness of it suddenly offended his mind. He had had to wear the thing for all of seven steps — what was the purpose? Still, rules were rules. He removed the band from one of his ears, but in his nervousness it tangled with the stem of his glasses and he involuntarily threw them down on the table. They bounced against the tablewood and went skittering away onto the floor and over towards the door, settling there upside-down like some broken insect. He leapt up to retrieve them — knocking his chair over in the process, which he righted awkwardly with an apologetic glance at the waitress — and hastened over to his fugitive spectacles before anyone should step on them, only partially aware that the waitress had stepped rapidly out of his way as he went, lifting her arms up above her head and giving him a wide berth in his passing — as though he were unclean somehow, or stank. He snatched up the glasses and peered at them. They had been scratched slightly; irritated, he mashed them back on his face, smudging them with his fingerprints as he did so and fogging half his world. He slunk back to his table. He looked around for a napkin with which to clean the lens, perhaps from one of the tin dispensers that were usually available in such places — but recalling that there was nothing, he began mechanically to use his shirt.
“Mr.?” He replaced his glasses, the light still refracting crazily through the smudge, looked up and saw her pointing. Following the line shown by her finger, he realized that in his haste to regain his glasses he had somehow dropped his facemask also on the floor. He leaned over to get it, stretching so far that he almost fell off his chair. The mask was moist and sticky, he noted with renewed irritation; it had fallen into a little puddle. He shook his head, shoved it into his pocket.
The waitress might so easily have saved him from his embarrassment, even by a little chuckle, a shake of her head, some jocular exasperation at his buffoonery — anything that would let him just laugh the matter off and establish some human connection with her; but she seemed if anything put off by his antics and impatient to get on with it. “Sir, I’ll need your full name and phone number, please.”
He laughed uneasily at the joke: she was very good at playing serious. He waited for the follow-up, but she only stood there, showing no signs of amusement. Surely she couldn’t be serious?
“Phone number and name, Sir?” she repeated.
He thought he heard her sigh. “It’s for the trackin’, Sir? If there are any new infections they’ll use it to alert you and anyone you’ve been known to be in contact with.”
“Ah, of course…” He paused, something stirring in him. He shrugged, pressing down his gorge, and gave her his name, spelling it out for her letter for letter, and his phone number. It occurred to him at the last moment that he might lie about it, throw in some false digit — he could always later claim it had been a mistake, if it ever came up — but felt immediately ashamed at this inexplicable velleity. He was of course happy to help the authorities in every way he could.
She finished transcribing, and peered down at him over the bluish lump of her nose. Her eyes were very near together, he suddenly realized, and gave her a gaze a curious intensity. “Alright. Thank you, Sir. Now what’ll you have?”
He looked up at her in renewed difficulty, amazed that there should be so many impediments rising so massed and serried around him. “I’m sorry,” he stuttered. “I didn’t see the menus…?” He glanced over to the entrance, as if he would perhaps find them there in some kind of a rack, or stacked neatly on the front counter; but he saw nothing of the kind, and he turned back toward the waitress helplessly.
She merely pointed, a wordless, accusatory or perhaps imperative finger, toward the table. He looked down at its bare surface, and looked up at her again in an increasingly desperate incomprehension. “See that little barcode there?” she asked, lifting her brows, emphasizing each word as though speaking to an imbecile or a child. “You can access the menu with your smartphone?”
“I… I don’t have a smartphone,” he admitted, blushing
A tired distance came into her eyes. “Son, I really don’t know what to do for you. We cain’t give out menus any more.”
“Look, can I just have a hamburger?”
She nodded and scribbled on her pad. “Fries or salad?”
“Fries’ll be fine.”
“Anything to drink?”
“Just water, thanks.”
She nodded again and disappeared, leaving him staring with burning face at that arcane symbol on the table before him. It glimmered up at him somehow malignly, reprovingly, as though in indication of all his failings.
At least — he thought suddenly, breaking the surface once more of the present moment, the park, the amber lamplight, the hot evening air of high summer, the descending line of the people before him — no one could now see the blush rising once more into his cheeks. Yet in surveying these events, something else rose in him as well, some spurt of resentment. If he did not want a smartphone, was he not free to go without one? He had always regarded them as a nuisance, how they went on chirruping importunately, constantly intruding themselves into the attentions and conversations of his friends. He despised how people were glued to them, constantly hulking over them wherever they went, constantly forcing others to look into them as well — little black windows to a fictive world that had somehow become the center of everyone’s world. He wanted to be free of that ceaseless invasion; was that not his affair? And yet the waitress had been so unfriendly, quite as if she expected everyone to know precisely how to handle this new state of affairs! But everything had changed so quickly; was he expected to have familiarity with so unfamiliar a world, and just so, automatically?
Yet in truth, no one else seemed to struggle so with it, so perhaps the problem lay in him after all…
With this thought, the rise of indignation subsided into a broader pool of self-doubt. He should of course not second-guess everything so much, he told himself chidingly; it wasn’t easy for anyone. And it was all being done for his safety, after all, and for the common good. Politicians, scientists, industry experts had tirelessly worked all of this out on the basis of the fullest knowledge of the situation that they could garner. There was a reason for everything, every brick they had lain. It was, of course, an inconvenience — but it was only that. There were worse things in the world than inconveniences. He had even been so very fortunate; how many people had lost their jobs, their businesses, not to speak of their lives and loved ones? All he had to deal with was a triviality or two. One had to be patient, that was all, and learn to live with a few small encumbrances. It was really so little — just a facemask here and there, just a few new safety precautions — all to save lives. He shouldn’t be so selfish, so petty, so spoiled. And even if he had to buy a smartphone in the end, was that so bad? He would probably be forced to, pandemic or no, with the way the world was going, so why not cut to the chase, make a virtue of necessity? He could use it only when he needed to, he told himself. And maybe it would even be exciting to see all the bells and whistles, as it were. His friends seemed constantly delighted by new discoveries, the latest cutting-edge “app.” He would be able at last to really stay in touch with the world; he had become so disconnected lately. This loner’s life just wouldn’t do any longer, that much was clear. The world wouldn’t tolerate it, and maybe the world was right. He really had to get back in touch. He was behind the times, in every way. Perhaps it was time for an upgrade, after all.
As for the rest — the masks and all of that — everything would work itself out in time. When things were safe, the world would go back to normal. It might not be until the vaccine — and really maybe not even then. Supposing they could produce a vaccine at all, it might not (as he had recently read) work with everyone, or might work only temporarily; it might be necessary to try a variety of different kinds of vaccines, and to keep the safety measures in place indefinitely as an aid to continual updates. The new normal. He didn’t much care for that expression. It gave him the feeling of being entangled in a web, somehow. He sometimes, in unwary moments, came upon it in his soul, this gnawing doubt, this dark suspicion that all of them were set out upon a course from which they could not turn back, their progress dictated by malevolent stars —
He set these unhappy thoughts forcibly aside. There was plenty of reason to hope, he told himself firmly. The best minds in the world were working on it, after all. He had heard that they were racing to get a vaccine into production as soon as possible, moving at breakneck pace. An unprecedented achievement.
To be sure, that did make him a little nervous. What kind of safety tests could they really run in just a few months? What if there were side-effects that only manifested a year or two down the road? He knew that new vaccines usually underwent clinical trials for as long as a decade or two. The pandemic had changed everything, of course. He had even heard that they were experimenting a novel, practically untested technology for this new vaccine, something to do with RNA, though he really understood none of it. But of course, he thought to himself, they would never put anything to the market that was unsafe.
He suddenly recalled, almost against his will, what Chris had recently told him, that the pharmaceutical companies were not held liable for the consequences of their vaccines. There were laws in countries across the world, Chris had claimed, actual laws, that made them immune to litigation, with new ones arising all over the board for this vaccine in particular. In the United States, for instance, one of the earliest general laws was called the Childhood Vaccine Act, or something like that. Chris had talked about some kind of special vaccine court there, or something of the kind, which handled all vaccine-related cases independently of the normal circuit, its judges sitting without jury and filing summary compensations for what Chris had rather hyperbolically called the “victims.” This court, Chris said, settled these claims, not by fining the companies that were responsible for the damages, but by tapping millions of dollars of public funds — taxpayer money.
Chris had really gone overboard lately in any number of conspiracy theories. The media, which existed after all to check these things, had never mentioned anything about this supposed vaccine law, nor this independent court, and had on the other hand identified several of Chris’s other and wilder claims as having been many times debunked. He had never looked into any of it, of course; why should he? If the media wasn’t trustworthy, what was?
He understood, naturally, that there were immense amounts of money involved, and he could believe that some higher up in the pharmaceutical companies here or there would just love for his products to be immune to liability — but that was why they had government in the first place, wasn’t it? Their elected politicians and scientific leaders would never field a medication whose perfect safety they could not guarantee — at least in the vast majority of cases. Surely there would be exceptions here and there, unfortunate individuals who would have some kind of adverse reaction, as with any medicine — but they would be just that, exceptions. Just think of all the lives they would save!
In any case, it was high time he started refuting Chris a little more stringently, with some concrete facts. That was his responsibility, both as a good citizen and as a good friend. It bothered him to see his friend going down that path, succumbing to all this fake news on the social media, coming back every now and then with wilder and wilder notions. Another reason not to get a smartphone! Of couse he too sometimes had his doubts about it all — that was only natural. He had wondered sometimes (as he believed everyone had) whether it would not have been more natural and less damaging to just let the illness run its course; whether the lockdown was worth the incalculable economic damage it had wrought; whether all of these changes to their lives were really justified by the numbers, which continued to appear very low to him as compared to other pandemics, like the Spanish Flu. But who was he to ask such questions? What did he know of any of it? He was not an expert, he was not a doctor. It was experts and doctors making these decisions, and they had their reasons. In any case, he would look into a few of these things later, to try to gather some hard data to put before his friend, if only he remembered to do so —
“Sir, your hands.” Startled from his thoughts by so deep a voice, he looked over. Standing beneath one of the pagodas he had earlier descried was an enormous gentleman in suit and tie and black mask, looming over a table, dark-circled eyes gazing as if into his very soul; the man’s arm was outstretched and his finger placed imperatively on the orange nozzle of a dispenser for hand-sanitizer.
“Ah…” That, too, then. He walked over and set his hands obediently beneath the nozzle. The man depressed it with his single knobby finger and nodded wordlessly. He withdrew, spread the cool silky stuff across his palms, and a disagreeable chemical, aseptic scent rose up about him. He knew it would be clinging to him for the remainder of the concert — it always lingered for some time afterward — and felt the annoyance returning. Why did he have to be so sensitive to all these things? It was just a stupid smell, after all. Everyone else had no problem with it; what was wrong with him?
Back to the line, then, behind the little old woman, the pearls gleaming at her neck. He had been thinking — what had he been thinking? Ah, yes, about the whole situation, the measures they had put in place. He suddenly wondered what the old woman thought of it all. She was, of course, more in danger than he was, since the virus attacked the elderly and frail far sooner than the young and healthy. She probably had innumerable friends, siblings, cousins who were at risk, even if she herself was not. It wouldn’t hurt to ask her how she felt about it, just to have another perspective on the whole affair. It would certainly help him be easy with it all, to hear from one of the people for whom all of this was really being done. Besides, she reminded him so much of his own grandmother, dead these seven years… He felt a curious fondness for her. He opened his mouth —
“Sir?” He looked over once again. The guardian of the hand-sanitizer was leaning out of the pagoda and waving urgently with huge fan-like hands. He didn’t understand. He had just sanitized his hands; was he supposed to do it twice, now? They were certainly being very careful… Well, no doubt it was for the best. He made a move toward the table, his hands outstretched — but the man only lifted his long crooked finger, wagging it. “No, no. You must maintain the social distancing protocols, Sir. It is for the safety of everyone!”
He looked back to where the man was indicating, still uncomprehending. All at once it dawned on him: in his distraction, he had fallen in too near with the elderly woman in the line. “Ah, right, sorry!” he muttered, and hastened back to his place, careful to stand at a greater distance even than was required. He folded his arms about his chest; his cheeks were on fire. The little old woman seemed small suddenly, very far away indeed. He couldn’t speak to her now; how could he? He would have to raise his voice, everyone would hear and he would look like a fool for posing such silly questions. He might come off as a doubter, a scoffer, one of these conspiracy loons. They might think he was trying to infect her mind with it. A normal person wouldn’t have doubts about any of this. And what if the old woman should laugh at him, in view of everyone? He looked at the space around him and felt suddenly exposed and singled-out. It seemed to him that up ahead the line was decidedly crowding in — yet there, no one said a word. Why had he, of all people, been set upon?
He shook his head, tried to forget. But the line was moving on so sluggishly… The new normal. Everything was slower now, he thought. He had always pined for an older tempo of life, less of this modern fret and furor — but this was somehow not what he had had in mind. It seemed he had so much less leisure even than before, what with all the waiting that had to be done now. He had wasted so much time just standing around in lines — and now here he was again. He felt the stilted breath on his face, the continually recycled air that seemed to grow staler and staler by the moment, the beads of humidity forming around his mouth. The mask was growing unbearable.
Gradually, he approached the ticket counter. A kind of plexiglass booth had been arranged there, and a little man sat like a jack-in-the-box in its shadowed recesses. He watched the old woman lift a fattish arm to slide her ticket through the slot under the glass. As she took the stub of it, she turned her head over her shoulder an instant, and he caught the side of her face; eyes, too, like his grandmother’s. She was wearing a facemask with an imprint of books on it, pastel covers. Everyone had suddenly begun to do themselves up like that, in real style — as if they were all already resigned to the continued necessity of it, as if they were settling in for the long haul. He didn’t even know where they went to purchase such things…
It seemed that the tiny man within the ticket booth was particularly standoffish with him, afraid even to handle his ticket. Had he been so fastidious with the little old woman? He couldn’t recall. There he was, sitting behind a full layer of plexiglass, and wearing a mask: wasn’t that a little excessive? Then again, the fellow surely had to be very cautious; he had so many people to deal with here. Nonetheless, as the man took his ticket and placed the stub back on the table with two tiny, pincer-like fingers, he felt unclean once more, dirty, corrupted somehow. And shouldn’t he feel so? He was, after all, as all of them, a vector for diseases. In this very moment, for all he knew, he might be carrying it within himself, might be bearing death in his breast, and might pass it on to anyone — why, even to that same old lady he had so irresponsibly wished to approach! He might have killed her with his question, he might have been her murderer, and never even known. The thought made him feel wretched.
He passed the booth and entered the ampitheater. This broad space, sunk like a deep arena into the earth, had once been a kind of grassy park with trees and a tall green knoll, but it had been long since razed and paved over into a wide level off-white piazza extending between the bleachers against the hill on the far side and a number of angular buildings connected to the opera house to the left. The geography of that lower piazza had visibly been altered for the event. Several towering structures had been raised here and there for lighting and speakers. (Speakers! What a shame… but it was surely necessary, given the venue?) He was only vaguely familiar with this place, having passed through once or twice on his way to elsewhere, but he found that it was unrecognizable with all of these additions. There had been, he was aware, quite a number of open-air concerts held here over the years, but these were generally of a different kind than those that he loved — more contemporary and popular music, rather than the classical music which alone really stirred him. On occasion it would host plays and theater pieces as well — though he had somehow never attended one — and also fundraisers and the like. Classical concerts had generally been held in the theater itself, whose insulated walls shielded them from all the ceaseless disturbances of the modern world — the honking horns, the ambulances, the constant drone of the cars from the busy thoroughfare above. The organizers had decided to make use of the ampitheater today for this concert — the first since the lockdown — because it was the only way of having a concert at all, given the emergency decrees that were still in place. He had, truth be told, been relieved to hear of their choice, because he had thought at the time that he would be able at least to listen to the music without his facemask. He felt it wrapped like a gag across his face, and attempted to shift it, as though this small change might improve his situation. Useless — there would be no relief until he could take it off altogether.
Before him on the paving stones rows of coal-black chairs had been set. To the right he saw the stage, lit up in an unnatural violet — the word “digital” floated through his head for some reason — and he was distantly aware of a complex grouping of transparent semi-reflective surfaces, like the facets of some gargantuan crystal. The larger instruments, the cellos and the bass and the tubas, were already in place and awaiting their players. Their polished wood and burnished brass glowed sickly in the ghastly light. He glanced over the rows of chairs. It was already late, and most of the public was in place — yet how sparse everything looked! Surely there was not so little interest in the first classical concert in months? He approached the chairs, seeking out the row numbers, and then glanced at his ticket stub. C14… Where might it be…?
Out of the corner of his eye he seemed to catch a glimpse of a figure moving toward him, and thought ridiculously for a moment that it was the old woman of before — perhaps to reproach him for something? But as he turned, he saw that no, it was not so: an usherette, perceiving his difficulty, was approaching him out of the dark grotto of the night, her slender body floating and welcoming somehow, extending a pale beckoning hand toward his ticket. Her slender fingers brushed his own as she took it — the first human touch, he realized with shock, that he felt since the quarantine. He shyly looked into her bent face. She was a girl his age — from what he could make out of her behind her mask — small and lithe and easy on her feet despite her high heels. Her straight hair, ebony to that twilight, had been gathered back above a clear white brow into a pony tail, and she was dressed in a black dress with clean crisp lines. Her sloe eyes were intent as she looked down at the ticket. It was a glance imbued, he fancied, with intelligence, quickness, wakefulness. When she looked back up her eyes were smiling. He imagined she must be very beautiful beneath her mask, her features refined, delicate — But then, what did he know of it?
This must be what it was like in Muslim countries, he thought disjointedly — though of course, in Muslim countries, no woman would ever dare dress like that. Nonetheless, how he wished he could see her face! She seemed so lovely, and here she was, working at a concert — surely she must have some taste for classical music to have landed a job like that? That was already something in common between them… He would have liked to say something to her, but for the barriers between them, that impenetrable paper-thin fabric leeched to their faces. He knew his words would be muffled, and what could she read of his eyes? Were they anywhere near so expressive as her own? What if they seemed insincere, detached from the curve of his mouth, the fall of the lines about his nose? He would have to speak very loudly to avoid muttering, and it was difficult to strike the proper tone. What if he should seem to scream at her? What if he came off as somehow hostile or perverse? He could not bear it if her eyes ceased to smile, if she became but another of the eternal expressionless — She was handing him the ticket with a quick cheerful nod, and pointing to the chairs beyond, and then back up toward the exit for some reason, explaining something to his deaf ears.
Then, to his bewilderment, she simply shattered the invisible barrier that was supposed to divide them, stepping up beside him with unnerving facility and coming in close. He felt a sudden burning awareness of her embodied presence, a sudden terrible intimacy with her for this gesture, which would have been as normal as sunlight just weeks ago, but now had become something rare, something precious — as though she had chosen him out and granted him, alone of all present, this unspeakable gift. As she leaned in to him to give him the sight line of her fragile arm, the warm breeze of her perfume washed over his face, obscured by the mask, mixing with the dusty smell of his enclosure — the scent of asphodel, he thought arbitrarily, though through the mask he couldn’t be sure of the fragrance at all, and in truth wasn’t even sure he knew what asphodel was. A sudden gust of wind rose up around them like a spirit, dying almost so soon as it had risen; it sent her hair tendriling out from about her face, and the dried leaves of the oak trees up at the gate went scattering about her heels. He reeled, and he thanked her, and began to say something else, anything to prolong this beautiful spell; but it seemed indeed that the voice in him was smothered, nor did his lips give any sign of his intentions —
“Enjoy the concert,” she was saying, her voice, though throttled by the mask, lilting and sweet to his ears. Her bright eyes so lively, so alive, flitted off like butterflies. Another person had already approached and like a thief drawn her away.
A sense of futility and impotence welled in him. He walked swiftly by, overcome with bitterness, toward where she had indicated — but in his darkness he had in truth not even registered which row she had named. His cheeks burning, his heart atumble, he approached another usher, a young man. He followed his steersman blindly, half-consciously, his mind twisting, until he stood before his row. He noted with irritation that not all the chairs were marked. Indeed, it seemed that most of them were not. At any rate, he was lucky, it would seem: his own chair was among the numbered. He picked his way awkwardly along the row, past the already seated audience members, who seemed to glance awry at him and to twist and to contort themselves into all manner of fantastic postures to avoid touching him.
It was only some seconds after he had sat, and after the agitation in him had somewhat abated, that he realized the reason for the dispersive chair numbering, and indeed for the emptiness that more generally seemed to haunt that place. Only every third seat was filled, the other two being nothing but placeholders to indicate the distances that must be kept. The spectators had thus been arranged in neat geometrical lines extending from back to front, each person isolated within a sphere of empty space, like so many objects on display. The bleachers of the theatron were totally empty; the entire audience was gathered down in the basin, on a level with the orchestra. There was a long table standing at the very front of the seats, between the public and the orchestra, strange and dark like an altar. What a small audience! And, as ever, almost all of them so very old… It really occurred to him for the first time that the orchestra was certainly losing money on this concert, as it had lost money the whole year with the concerts it had had to cancel, and he suddenly wondered how long they could carry on like this. With a feeling of sickening vertigo he perceived the fragility of it all. There was nothing guaranteeing such events, no necessity behind them whatsoever; they might cease as well as not, for a lack of funding, a lack of interest. Ah, how he had taken everything for granted — all of it, so many things! Now life was changed, and was fated to change again: there might come a day when the orchestra would disband and the theater and ampitheater be repurposed and the music stop altogether —
He looked around himself forlornly. Ah, how much this virus had cost them! Certainly, one had to rebel against the consequences — not, to be sure, by doing anything against the rules, per se, or anything which would put people in jeopardy, but rather merely by affirming life, affirming the continuance and continuity of life as one could…
The evening was humid and the heat of the diminishing day seemed to lie over all of them like an invisible but oppressive presence. He felt the heat of his breath on his face, felt the panic rising at this suffocation, this confinement. Lifting a hand, he drew the mask down to his chin and sucked in the clean air, a fresh draft to his thirsting lungs. Relief expanded within his body, the tension in his limbs loosening. How it was that other people could tolerate this thing for more than half a minute, he would never understand. He noted a woman sitting up ahead and to the left, turning towards him — was that reproach in her eyes? Hurriedly he drew the mask up again over his mouth. She turned away, and a flurry of anger overcame him. What business was it of hers what he did with his face? And why should be he so weak as to buckle the instant some stranger looked askance at him? The entire evening had been but one embarrassment after another. Surely, one must rebel against all of this! He felt something spiring up in him, some sudden stab of pride and manfulness, the revenants of his forefathers stirring faintly in his heart. He took the mask off altogether. Shame and vexation and triumph mingled into a strange elixir within his spirit. He wanted to do something, perform a bold gesture of some kind — make a clean sweep of it. He decided, then and there, on the instant: after the concert was concluded, in one way or another he would find her, the usherette, would speak to her. He would have her name, or it kill him. It was the only way out of this morass of premature decrease that had been brought down on all their heads. He would stand for something, after all — life, liberty, youth, whatever you wished to call it. He would find her and say — what? But it didn’t matter what; it was only the act that mattered, the act of simple protest against this illness and its deathly implications. Life must on, and he must be its bearer; what other way out was there? It did not matter if he had to wait for every last soul to depart that place. Whatever it took, he would find her —
He leaned over, twisting in his seat, seeking her eyes over the masked heads of the people there. They were all of them so meekly arrayed, precisely where they had been placed, in an artificial and dehumanized order, and he felt a sudden contempt for them all, himself included. What were they doing! How could she look fondly upon any man whose every choice was dictated by some faceless conductor! She at least had not quavered a moment before trespassing these illusory boundaries. She was untouched by it somehow, pristine and innocent. She had no fear of him, nor of them — nor, what was infinitely most important, of herself. He sought her out the more urgently, but a great metal framework, vaguely pyramidal, somehow reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower (he had always thought that monument unspeakably ugly), had been erected there at the side of the public — on it were mounted those lurid violet spotlights glaring down fixedly on the stage, and at its top there floated a single gargantuan lead-colored speaker with a central black hub like an open eye — and it happened that this monstrosity was set directly in his line of sight, obscuring his view of her. He fancied he saw her moving in fragments and shadows through the metal grill, a dark and broken figure, but he could not be sure. Straining forward and back was all to no avail.
He suddenly became aware that he must look very ridiculous, jerking about like that, and he felt the blood rushing to his cheeks yet again. He hunkered down in his chair. Ah well; surely anyone who had seen him would simply consider that he was looking for someone he knew — for a friend, maybe, who was to attend the same concert…? And then, even if they somehow guessed his true intentions, what of it! Had he not a right? Was courtship to be prohibited, along with everything else? He glared about himself balefully.
But it was all nonsense. He sat straighter: he was decided. He would rise and go, he would speak to her, after the concert. He longed to see her without her mask… Yet — the thought suddenly burst into his mind like a cloud — what if he should be disappointed? What if he should find her ugly — or she, him? Or worse still — what if one should be attracted to the other, but not vice versa, once the masks were off and their true faces revealed? These many vital permutations unnerved him. Of course, it was all silliness, utterly premature, just castles in the sky. Who knew what would come of it! Likely nothing at all. He still had to find her in the first place, and he might not manage even that much. If she slipped away now, that was the end; he would never be able to recognize her anywhere but here.
Against the doubts, the faltering, he steeled his will: he would find her. He swore it to himself, whispering the words fiercely through gritted teeth. He glanced over toward the tower again, and something stabbed in his heart: he seemed to perceive her lithe arm, her white hand, rising up delicately at the far side of the pyramid in some gesture, it seemed, of elegance and surrender, as she spoke to an invisible person there and leaned slowly into his field of vision —
“Sir?” He looked up. Another usherette, but with unpleasant tiny eyes, standing at a great distance, was craning over toward him at what seemed an absurd angle and gesturing to her face. “I’m sorry, Sir,” she called with excessive enunciation, turning heads, “but you must wear your mask at all times while on the premises.”
The red blossom on his cheeks was now all too visible to those turned heads. The people seated to his left, to his right, were glancing over at him. He was vaguely aware that the same woman who had looked at him so reproachfully before was also staring at him over her shoulder; she was almost fully turned now, something gloating in her eyes. He nodded curtly and pulled the mask up about his mouth and nose, not daring to look at anyone at all, but crossing his arms about him protectively and staring into the back of the chair in front of him — the broad burgundy shoulders of the fat man seated in it, so much nearer to him than the social distancing measures should have allowed.
His thoughts were a turmoil, he felt the world closing in about him again. It was all so intolerable. Surely it was best to quit this place now — perhaps to listen to the music from some other quarter. There were a few spots thereabouts he might try — a little square with great ancient oak trees up on the hill where he might be able to hear something of the concert. At least there he could listen in peace, without this mask cleaving to his face, without the hot humidity of his own breath being forced back into his lungs — without all these moralistic voyeurs hovering about him. Clean air, clean air! He couldn’t breathe, he felt the panic…
Glancing around himself in a kind of feeble urgency, he suddenly saw up ahead a stooped old couple slowly sitting down beside one another, helping one another painfully to their seats. They were dressed impeccably, all the angled signs of their deterioration ennobled by these fine layers of cloth. They were so dressed, he fancied, not in the least out of vanity or ostentation, which would have been patently absurd at their age, but only out of dignity, and a sense perhaps of respect for this event, for the importance of the music. Or perchance as well out of love for one another, and the nostalgia for all they had been. The sight of them soothed his troubled soul. They were both masked, after all; if they could bear it, then certainly so could he? They seemed tranquil enough. They must have been about their ninth decade in this world, and here they were come to listen to this concert together, despite all obstructions and discomforts, in the very face of the danger that this virus presumably represented for them in particular. What courage, what dedication! And they there, together! It was lovely to think on, all those years together, all that life shared — here, renewed in celebration for the thousandth time: a proclamation that, pandemic or no, they were still alive, and they yet belonged to one another, and they would not be cowed by plague nor discord, but would live their joined life to the fullest and to the end. Ah, thank God for them! (Quaint and antiquated expression, that, but it came to him just so: thank God…)
But then he saw that the same usher who had shown him to his seat was approaching them. He froze in his chair. The usher, standing at that distance they all so religiously maintained (except for her…), was saying something them. He could not make out the words, but he saw the gestures and understood at once what was being communicated. The old man seemed to protest, lifting his gnarled hands into the air, attempting to exert all the great prestige that his age should have conferred on him — but in days like theirs, what was such age but a handicap and a liability? He was patient, willful; he even dropped his mask to make his words clearer and more forceful, revealing a face which was handsome and clean-shaven despite all the years imprinted into it. But the usher reproached him at once for this, and the mask was duly lifted again. Another gust of the sudden wind picked up the old man’s thin gray hair like static. The usher pointed at the chairs and shrugged at the old man’s words, as though he were not to be held accountable for rules he had not made — as if he were just a humble link in an adamantine chain extending back to who could say what unquestionable fount of authority and irreproachable wisdom.
The old man, vanquished, nodded and stood, shrugging his age-stooped shoulders in painful acquiescence, and leaned down against the stiffness of his arthritis-racked body to kiss his wife on the brow through his mask. She looked up at him — wide pale eyes, a crooked hand rising feebly to him, the flaccid muscles drooping beneath sagging skin. All that they had lived through, all that they had survived, he thought, to be treated like this! Then the old man nodded to her and said something and dropped his mask a moment to smile at her, taking her hand in his and patting it reassuringly. He replaced the mask, turned, stepped over two chairs and sat down heavily, as the usher at last withdrew. It seemed that the old man sat there beneath a new weight — the weight of resignation, the weight of defeat. But still he turned to his wife — surely he was smiling again — and extended a hand to her, which she made an effort to grasp. He said something to her, which it seemed she could not hear: the distance was too great. They grazed each other’s bent fingertips and the hands fell away and they retracted their aged limbs and looked forward again, as though in shame.
By what right! Anger filled his heart. — But anger at what? At the usher, who was, after all just doing his job? Anger at the rule-givers, who had acted on the counsel of the experts? Anger at the experts, who had given all their suggestions, no doubt, on the basis of their best knowledge and their superior view of the situation at hand? Anger at the virus itself, just a dumb composite of tiny matter, not even fully a living organism, which had risen blindly amongst them to wreak such havoc on countless individual moments, countless individual lives? What, whom was there to blame for all of this?
But that was the devil of it: there was nothing and no one here to rage against — was there? It was all so utterly futile, the weight of this thing and its independent momentum too enormous and unassailable now to possibly be thwarted. At the same time, was it really true that individual agency had been obliterated just like that, at a blow? If he had been in the usher’s shoes, for instance, would he have separated that aged couple? Would he have had the courage, the cowardice, to do it? Could he have withstood the pressure of his presumed duty, the roving eye perchance of the men who had employed him to enforce their impersonal and sterile rules? But whether or not he was strong enough to have done otherwise, perhaps there was some sense in blaming at least this usher, who was “only doing his job.” How many real atrocities had that little phrase excused to the world! This much at least was certain: amidst all the trouble of their times, each person had to live, to the best of his ability, by his own lights, had to stand against the darkness as he was able, had to reassert his little independence, his own small but firm sense of right and wrong, as much as he was able in the face of this occult new leviathan.
And he himself? Who was he to speak? He, who could not even breathe the free air for fear of being chided like a naughty child! And what did he know, anyway? If they began to break rules here or there, the consequences further down the line might be dire indeed… They must remember the lives they were saving, that was the trick. No, there was nothing for it, it was useless to moralize. The glue binding all of them was too strong, this force more powerful even than the gravity which pinned them to the planet. They were all of them caught up in the fate of this thing, blind like flies in a web, and there could be no escape. Not now, not ever. They were going where they were being carried, and all they could do was hope that benevolent were the hands that bore them hence —
The sense of suffocation became overpowering. He couldn’t abide it any longer; he would certainly have to escape if he did not do something immediately. Escape — a welcome idea! Why shouldn’t he just rise now and go? He had paid for his tickets, but what of that? He was not a rich man, but he had not purchased his seat to pass a distressed hour in it, torn against himself. He could afford to let the money slide if it meant a more pleasant, if less immediate, audition. Why should he not stand now, and rise, and depart?
The usherette, of course. She was why — among other things. Questions of principle. No, he would have to tough it out.
Tough out a music concert! What had the world come to? The closure about him was too tight, too tight —
He lifted a hand and slid the mask down over his nose, and began to breathe urgently through his liberated nostrils. The passage of his quick breathing was still somewhat hampered by the rim of the mask, so that he could feel his own heavy exhalations pooling there uncomfortably beneath his nose, but at least this was tolerable, if not altogether natural. He pressed the mask more firmly against his upper lip, and found that the relief was greater still.
He glanced uneasily around himself. Surely no one would tell him that he could not draw a little fresh air through his own nose? They were worried about contagion, after all; what danger was he in, what danger was he putting anyone else in? They must leave him in peace, they must allow for this small compromise. Mustn’t they?
The metallic strip within the upper limit of his mask was already working away from his lip again, and he pressed it firmly back down, trying to bend it to a better form for this new position. As he did so, he caught a whiff of something — the disagreeably aseptic smell of the hand-sanitizer. Ah, that it might have been her perfume about him, instead! He could not even recall it to himself, that fragrance, with these chemicals edging about his nose, clinging now to the mask itself where he had touched it. He could almost taste them each time he inhaled…
Strange to think that not even half a year prior, such a laughable situation (it was laughable, wasn’t it?) would have seemed impossible. Everything had changed, and so fast. They themselves, these people around him day by day, were different now. They were like creatures shorn of something, some glowing irrepressible confidence they had once in the glory of their collective youth possessed, some faith in their salubrious natures, in their clean life. He knew deep within himself that they couldn’t get it back, that innocence in a presumed health. They were all of them sick now — all of them to a one and without exception.
He lifted his eyes imploringly to the heavens. He did not know why the gesture came to him like that, so naturally. He had been doing it a lot lately — gazing upward like that, tossing up some glance, as though in beseeching enquery to the deep blue, the satin black above him. As though his life itself were naught but a question echoing in the recesses of those endless light-trapped chasms, an enigma which might one day receive answer. Answer — from what?
The sky was dimming in the late of evening, and swallows wheeled like black stars against the dying light. He saw a great thunderhead protruding into the flawless space directly above him, capturing the last rays of a perishing sun, lapping them up like a hoarder preparing for the coming dark — as though animated by the vain hope that it too should soon be a bearer and diffuser of light, come the sun’s demise. He was aware for the first time of the blackness on the horizon in front of him — not indeed the coming of the star-punctured night, but something else altogether: great opaque clouds that swallowed star and sky alike and loomed there threatening on the edge of the world. The wind beat up again about him, as though it had but been awaiting his glance. Was rain coming, he suddenly wondered? Somewhere in the distance he heard the desolate wail of an ambulance. Surely the musicians would be contending with all manner of distractions…
Rain, wind, masks, punctilious buzzard-like ushers, din and distances — what a series of stupid hurtles to what was supposed to be an eve of simple enjoyment! No matter. He must make the most of it, of the whole charade. Why not focus on the fairer aspects? Here he was, about to hear true music outside, under the open heavens. Music and sky together — that was something, wasn’t it? Something rare, something good. They echoed in one another, music and sky, they mirrored one another, they reflected one another’s essence and seemed to compound that upward celestial thrust of the harmonies themselves, which brought a man to rise, to rise. That starry sky over his head was good: it could not be taken from him.
His eyes fell from the heights and came to dwell on the stage, framed by a mammoth square structure of blackened steel. He noted with distaste the microphones dangling like spiders from the scaffolding, and let his glance fall beneath them. Once again, he had the immediate impression of a lacework of crystals. He realized with a start what he was looking at: plexiglass, dozens, perhaps hundreds of sheets of plexiglass, shimmering in the violet and pallid light, glittering like the set to some science fiction movie. The stage below had been partitioned into different spaces for the orchestral groups, the strings in a number of compartments in the foreground, the winds detached and separated at a slightly elevated position, behind a long plexiglass divider that ran the full length of the stage. He could not make out much beyond that, but he supposed from the strange play of lights in the gloomy recesses of that segregated space that the percussion, too, had been cut off. But it was the area above, where the chorus was to stand, that most caught his attention: row after row of plexiglass booths had been arranged there, each closed on three sides and opened at the front — so many little plastic cages in which the chorists were to sit in solitude, staring at his companions through transparent walls, singing to the sound of his own reverberating voice —
He shuddered. A bleak dark blanket seemed to fall over his heart. This is what they had been reduced to — all of them, not only the chorists. Was he himself not sitting in just such a cage, replete with its invisible yet inviolate walls?
As if on cue, the lights dimmed and swelled and dimmed and swelled again, indicating to all time was come for them to sit. Time to sit! As if anyone might be loitering about, socializing perchance! Usually, at this first sign that the concert was to begin, he would feel rising in his heart the sweet anticipation of the experience to come, the gentle eager waves of his love and his hope lapping at his consciousness. Here and now, he felt but a leaden weight. Surely it would lift once the music began; surely not even this was heavy enough to resist that upward thrust, that sky-centered gravity, of the music…
A woman’s voice, cracked and distorted by the electric medium into which it had been transposed, rang out startlingly over their heads: “Ladies and gentlemen, in pursuance to the continuing emergency situation, guidelines have been established which are to be followed for the duration of this event. Masks must be worn at all times within the confines of the concert space, and social distancing must be rigorously respected. Once the concert has begun, audience members will be required to stay in their seats and not to move for any reason, except in case of emergency. Thank you for your cooperation.”
The tone was disembodied, official, brusque, stilted. He came into mind of static announcements squawked out over airport speaker systems, the loudspeaker directives of communist regimes in distant in gray concrete squares, the robotic voices of text-reading programs. He could not make out the source of the voice, and was chilled by it — not only by its words, but more still by the fact that it had taken the place of any kind of opening salutation. He had always slightly resented such pre-concert addresses, feeling them superfluous to the event and inarticulate in the face of the music they were meant to introduce — but here, he suddenly felt their lack. Would it not have been much more natural and cordial to introduce these “guidelines” (what a euphemism! Was anyone allowed any choice in these matters whatsoever?) in the context of a warmer and more human discourse, welcoming the audience, thanking them for their presence, congratulating the organizers and the musicians and the conductor and the public on this inaugural concert after the long silence of the quarantine? There was something so numbingly bureaucratic about it that it made his heart brittle and cold. Would they not even communicate the usual message that cellphones were to be put on silent mode?
But the lights dimmed over their heads and the audience began to applaud, and for a sickening moment he thought they were applauding the announcement itself. Then he saw, with something like relief, that it was rather for the appearance of the orchestra. The musicians were arriving, trickling onto the stage, not with their usual vigorous and lusty pace, but rather one by one, sparse and fragmented, somehow subdued. Social distancing, of course. They were all wearing black masks, and they picked their way to their seats one by one like lonely wanderers in some apocalyptic scene. This gradual matriculation took a considerable amount of time, and before long the audience’s applause had dwindled to naught, so that it was in utter silence that the last of the musicians arrived to their places.
When at last the final violinist had sat, the applause was renewed for the chorists. They too entered single file, dripping one by one into the reticulated mass of transparent shells above, and assumed their boxes, standing each within his own incomplete chamber, equidistant from every other, like elements in some kind of modern art installation. On account of their number, it took even longer for them to fill the false honey-comb structure than it had for the instrumentalists to take their seats, and so more than half of the singers ended up heading onstage in complete quiet. There they stood, the host of them somber and dark and masked, hands folded, like celebrants in some cimmerian ritual; then, when they had all gathered, they sat as one, unified in obedience yet atomized and isolated. For one absurd moment it crossed his mind that they would be made to sing through their masks — but then, once more to his small relief, he saw them doffing the black pieces of fabric and exposing their human visages to the world, moving in as many independent and fluid motions, like golems transformed spontaneously into human beings.
He knew one of the chorists, an old friend of his, from whom he had not heard for some months however. Life was, after all, so busy, even in the quarantine… They had grown up together, he and this chorist, and though they differed in many ways, they shared at least a passion for music. He really must call him one of these days. They used to go out for coffee together betimes, but it occurred to him this might no longer be possible, or might be riddled with all manner of unpleasant snares. Ah, well; perhaps they could meet in a park or some other open public space. He sought out his friend’s face in the chorus, as he often liked to do before the start of concerts — a kind of anchor in that sea of unknown countenances. Yet this evening it was useless; behind the first exposed row, the plexiglass walls, which must have stood at least a head taller than any man, obscured everyone behind, rendering them strange and distorted and unreal, like so many spirits locked into some kind of primordial crystal.
The words “new normal” floated once again nauseatingly through his head. He found himself shaking his head rapidly, as though to dispel it all, to wake from the dream — but there it was. There was, of course, nothing to do but submit. It was beyond anyone’s control. They had lived so comfortably for so long; it was entirely to be expected that sooner or later the world should reassert itself. Yet, if it had only been just a question of the virus, just the virus —
The applause suddenly rose up again, urgent now: the conductor was stepping onstage.
He seemed to rise from out of the ground, a vigorous man, with dark silver-streaked hair and a premature widow’s peak. He took the stage in long strides, bounding up to his podium powerfully, as though gravity were to him some lesser concern, and loomed large before them all, weirdly charismatic in the downward-pointing blade of his black mask. His large eyes gleamed in the fey light, his arms outstretched as though to embrace their applause. He took a histrionic bow, and the applause seemed to explode. As though it had all been organized for him — the stage, the orchestra and the choir; the microphones and the mechanical superstructure glowering cycloptically over them; even the ushers and usherettes, the security guards, the facemasks, the seats with their phantom spectators, the rules themselves — all of it arranged around him as around its center, its purpose — all for him, all for the conductor, all of them there in that place and that moment and that manner —
Then as if on his command the applause subsided, and wordlessly the conductor turned his back upon them, doffing his mask and hanging it from the rostrum with a bent hand. He took up his baton: the concert was at last about to begin, and all the rest could be forgotten. Everything else, everything would be washed away in the purification that was to come. He closed his eyes: better not to see, better to listen only. Better to forget, forget everything; better to let this music transport him to some other place altogether.
The first stirring chord rose up. He recognized it at once: Mozart, the overture to The Magic Flute, sounding out like an initiation. But there was a tension in his chest, a distraction and a doubt. The mask was itching about his nose. He scratched it violently and pressed it against his lip again. He must let all that go, must concentrate now on the music — the initial pairs of triumphal chords — interspersed with the slow, subdued, promising, questioning undercurrent of the strings — readying the listener, gently laying these first foundational bricks in the listener’s heart —
But on the road above a motorcycle went racing by, roaring shrilly, swallowing the opening phrases of the music. It seemed then to stall in the street, as though hanging motionless there, its driver depressing the gas again and again from a neutral position for some reason, an interminable cycling of the coarse insistent racket, a series of sharp pops like gunfire. He opened his eyes, glared up, but the machine was out of his view; then it was fleeing off into the dark, the resounding nasal drone of it chasing it away like a vengeful spirit. The music emerged and stood newly master over the auditory realm about them, rising now to its fervid and playful awakening before the glory of its first refrain — but it was tainted. Something had shattered in that initial moment, and he listened, dead in his soul. He tried to force his bearings in it, tried once more to latch himself to its going, feckless as a freighthopper — but to no avail. Not even in the noble reprisal of the introduction before the fall to the minor key, not even in the vivid race that followed, was he able to regain the current. The music seemed remote somehow, faraway and unreal, like an old recording in some distant room. Simultaneous sounds merely: the strains of a gray and brittle old manuscript stowed up in some museum or other, the mere registry of what a man had once written in quizzical little marks on a piece of parchment somewhere. It was not Mozart, no: it was only the figment of Mozart, the remnants of Mozart, his merest reliquiae. Mozart’s old ghost presiding there over a mechanical in memoriam. Dust and ash and memory. No music, no music. Ah, how he loathed all these mechanical adjuncts! The electric edge to them, the hollow artificiality! The balance was all off, favoring the strings to such an extent that the woodwinds’ delicate part was altogether drowned out. — But no, that wasn’t it, or wasn’t all… There was something else, something worse again…
Indeed, there was something tinny and false about the music itself — and he divined in an instant that it was the plexiglass, the ubiquitous plexiglass, which was reverberating the notes against its synthetic planes. Those transparent boundaries, everywhere around them, walling off man and woman and woman and man, cutting off all contact, all voice, vivisecting space and music and life, closing it in, immuring it in a rigid network of channels and angles and corners, rendering it dull, unnatural, partial, incoherent. He felt suddenly claustrophobic for the very space surrounding him, this sphere of mere air that enclosed him more hermetically than the walls of a prison. It was inside of him somehow — the walls were inside of him —
Ah, was there no hope for it! What manner was this to listen to a concert? He would have done better to sit alone in his bedroom, taking in some ghostly recording from the speakers of his computer. It would have been more comfortable and honest, so much less alienating. How could he focus on the music in this place, under these conditions? The spirit in him was inert, the heart in him was closed.
Then the overture was already done, and the people were clapping, clapping like robotic manikins built for this one thing only. He sat numbly, immobile, his arms rigid beside him. He saw the same masked woman glancing back at him as though in reprimand, and he found himself clapping as well, clapping and clapping. He had felt nothing, the music had been nothing to him, it was all but a farce of manikins and pageantry — and he, manikin himself, clapped with the rest of them —
The conductor turned and bowed deeply, triumphantly somehow, throwing an open arm energetically over the heads of the musicians behind him. Everything he did was vulgar some how, excessive and exaggerated. He had the mask on again — how, and when…? Then he turned and threw up his arms, and as if attached to so many strings the choir leapt up, and he turned once more to the crowd, applauding now with them, inciting them fervently to ever greater applause, commanding them to it, lifting his huge hands into the air over his masked head and beating his palms against one another in some primordial rhythm, his eyes lancing down at them all through the dark.
A woman was entering the stage, small and regal. She was dressed in white, a lone dove in a murder of crows. She moved elegantly to her place on a podium of her own, and she wore no mask, and he looked at her in wonderment. Her hair was golden, she seemed to shimmer. She was slender, nearing perhaps her fiftieth year but exuding this sense of invincible youth. Somewhere horns were honking, a dog barking; somewhere a deep warning rumble above them; the scent of camphor; someone was screaming in the street. The conductor did not denude his face this time but stood over the heads of the musicians masked and elevated like a diabolical overlord.
He looked up, looked up into the sky, as the music began; and he sought to weave those tones with the heavens and the light of the heavens, to prepare himself for her voice. But the light above had already been vanquished and the thunderhead was elongated now and dun and lightless; it seemed almost to be collapsing, melting into the wider storm. The stars could but dimly be read past the line of the clouds. He did not know the music — something baroque, rich, deep, the music of some antient Christian worship. The chorus began to sing through the wind that had been cropping up, so many voices which would become a single voice, conquering brute individualism in a higher harmony, conquering bland uniformity in their integral and consummated individuality — but no, it was not what he had hoped — it was wrong — the voices were fragmentary, discordant. He knew with a start that they could not hear each other singing: each of these chorists was singing alone there on the stage, singing to his own echo, singing narcissistically in the enclosure of his shrunken world. The voices rebounded and shattered against the walls of plexiglass and struggled up out of the morass to be sucked in by the greedy microphones and vomited back out over the heads of these neatly rowed listeners, and the corrupted arrangement of them was composite and mechanized and slightly dissonant and altogether alien to any living, any divine love. It was wrong, it was all wrong —
He looked despairingly at the stage, at the musicians, all moving together, like some single pantomime being. He saw her rising up there pale and shining. He saw fragments jerking in the light around her, strange beings moiling against the distorted mirror of the plexiglass — the second conductor there, suspended in the air, moving jarringly in another dimension, like a spirit coved out and entrapped in some obscure nightmare of ceaseless recollection. The true bodies beyond, their covered faces, melded with him and his cadre of shadow sychophants, and all of them were suddenly transposed, become the beings of that other place, that other time. He saw the chorists chanting their wooden melodies, row upon row of them, faces locked in frigid cages, wraiths petrified in the embrace of an altogether premature demise, an army of specters summoned up in a horrible delirium…
Then she began to sing.
A voice as pure as sunlight: three pure ascending notes, heaven itself on earth. His entire soul lifted and he felt his body loosed and his spirit revel. Her living voice pierced past the speakers themselves. The fire of her song shattered every barrier, encompassed every limit; she lifted a gracile hand into the air. Her words were entering him at last, freeing him, transporting him —
“Sir!” The whisper was hoarse, angry. He looked over distractedly: the disagreeable usherette, leaning over and pointing to her covered nose. He wondered vaguely at her, as though striving to comprehend what she could possibly want. It was the mask, of course. His protruding nose had broken the rules. He lifted the fabric over his nostrils and made a gesture, rude and dismissive. The suffocation was on him again, the panicky heat of his breath. Wrath was burning in him. The soprano was singing on, and the arc of her voice was over them like a flaming sword, but there was nothing in her any longer for him, nor for anyone else. He would rise and go now — how could he remain? Why would he remain? He would take his mask off and leave, just like that, and if he made a scene about it, all the better.
But no — they had said at the beginning, that robotic voice had commanded, that the audience members must stay put. To save lives. He could not rise. It was against the rules, all of it — his whole better life. He struggled against the weight. Why not stand now, why not depart, why not let these rules and rule-givers go to the devil? He looked to the right, to the left, at the masked faces fixed obsessively upon the conductor — the people he should be forced to pass on his way out — and he could not. As surely as if his legs in that moment had been paralyzed by an ictus, he could not stand —
He turned his covered face numbly toward the stage. Something strange. Behind the radiant soprano, a black figure was darting furtively away — a disturbance somewhere in the crowd and the soprano’s voice cut off as though a clamp had shut about her slender throat. The runner was one of the violinists, rotund and small; he caught a glimpse of her pale round shoulders, the dark line of her dress as she raced from the stage, hulking over her violin like a fleeing mother bearing her child out from the catastrophe. Murmurs in the crowd — the music was collapsing. He looked around in perplexity; what was happening? The conductor had turned, maskless, for the first time, looking down on them with huge gloating eyes, and oh God there was something so terribly wrong with his mouth — the orchestra was dissolving even as he watched. The white soprano simply vanished in a sable sea. The wind was up, catching their clothing, dispersing the leaves of their music in a flurry of white. They were all standing, moving away, swiftly grabbing up instruments and musical scores, and flying offstage amidst the fluttering sheets, shattering the protocols altogether, tumbling about in a turmoil of bodies and encumbered limbs. He felt the droplets on his face, and he knew.
He turned. Over above the low-hanging roofs it was showing through the spotlights in slashing rays of falling light. He saw it densing. The crowd was rising, dispersing, clogging out amidst the chairs like fleeing animals, and the rain was coming down hard now, and the stage was empty, and the seats in front of him were empty and already glimmering wet. He stood, he siezed the mask and felt the string of it snap. He cast it aside, onto the shimmering paving stones, and stood regarding its pale form a moment. Then he turned his back on it and followed the crowd. A security guard was shouting something at him from one of the gazebos, pointing with ludicrous emphasis to his own face, but he simply waved the man away and walked on. There was a burst of light and an explosion overhead, and turning he perceived the last trace of the jagged strand of white fire that had abolished the night and pierced through one of the ancient oak trees on the hill, and he saw a crown of flames rising above it. He gaped in wonder. Someone had screamed — and then they were all toiling again, he behind them, drearily onward, moving slowly down, no order to them now, not even any panic now, nothing but the likeness of humanity pressing through the rain, shuffling down toward the exits — dreary refugees of the universal disaster. He flowed in the sluggish flood of them, step for step, growing sodden beneath the rain with them. Umbrellas had bloomed up ahead — he could not say where they had come from — and stood suspended now like black mushrooms over some few heads.
The usherette. He stopped and spun about — but it was useless, just an endless mass bumping against him, pressing against him, maundering and mindless. He could never find her now, not even if she was still there, standing slender and clean and wide-awake beneath the rain. He turned away and descended with the herd, past the abandoned booth of the squeamish ticket collector, past the Kharonian hand-sanitizer, standing there now like an undertaker, the cavernous hollow eyes following his naked face with weird fixedness — down through the gate and onto the sidewalk by the street, its racing cars and glowering headlights slashing unreal through the downpour. He stood there on the concrete sidewalk, immobile and alone, the faceless faces drifting past him on all sides and in every direction but back, beneath an oily sky, starless in the city’s orange glower, and ceaseless and immutable rains.