Though it had been four years since she’d seen him, (since she’d been passed over), and they were predicting more snow for Boston, it was the right year to have lunch, so Martha took the commuter rail in from Worcester to meet her old teacher, Fred Holleman.
“We’ll have lunch every year that has an extra day in it,” he said at her last lesson before graduation. “It’s extra so that old friends find the time to have lunch.”
It was his way of speaking – imaginary, in a way – but Martha believed in it, had ever since her fourth lesson ten years ago, when she was fifteen, her voice airy and breaking across the important phrases of the soprano audition piece. “Know this?” he’d said in the middle of the Italian aria, and began to play the low opening bars to “Send in the Clowns.”
I’m not sure which came to Petersen first – did she write a shell of a story and realize it was the narrative form of the song, or did she want to fit a story to the song? – but the fit is extraordinary, not just in the broad strokes but in numerous details throughout. Yet for a reader unfamiliar with the song, the story would still work, the details smooth and not seeming shoehorned in at all. That’s pretty impressive, especially considering the density of details in the story: words, images, fragments of scenes.
Martha seems an odd name for our protagonist. Were parents naming their children “Martha” twenty-five years ago? Not often; it was the 218th most popular girl’s name in 1989, according to Time’s widget. I’m not sure of the significance of that, whether it’s to give an old-fashioned accent to the story, or to underline Martha’s odd-duckness, though she isn’t really so much odd as awkward and insecure. I’m not even sure significance is necessary; it just struck me as atypical.
The basic plot is a friendly lunch with her college voice teacher just before a concert he is in town to present, but a blizzard thwarts the event and sequesters them in a downtown hotel. Martha’s crush on the professor is balanced by her hurt at having been passed over for a grad-school scholarship when he recommended someone else. Her motivation through the story is to show him a piece she composed with him in mind, an original poem set to music:
A blue night is like a blue note:
not quite there, but close enough
the way I was almost inside of those lobbies then, those
thick-lit rooms of people.
Between the parallels to the song and the misunderstandings and missed connections that ensue, it might seem like this is the script for a romcom, and it could have easily gone that way way – or even into farce territory; don’t you love farce? – but Petersen keeps it under control. The tone is melancholy and reflective, the narration internal, and that provides a deeper resonance than expected from a summary: it’s a saxophone with its blue notes, rather than a piano playing a well-known tune. Although “Send in the Clowns” is a song I know very, very well (don’t we all), I didn’t even see all the references until the second time around, so they aren’t essential, just intensifying. I’ll admit that I also enjoyed it because of content. Like Martha, I’ve had a lifelong habit of developing crushes on music teachers. And I know what it’s like to very much want to be someone’s protégé, but to lack the requisite chops to be of interest to anyone interested in having such a disciple. It’s also not a surprise that, given my great fondness for Molly McNett’s “La Pulchra Nota” from last year’s Pushcart, that I should be particularly taken with another voice-teacher story, this one from another century, and the other side of the classroom.
I do have a complaint, however (don’t I always): the timeline clues seem crammed in to the opening paragraphs in a way that doesn’t make them that easy to follow. Or am I just dense about time? It is numbers, after all. But I had to draw a picture to figure it out, to get that she’s 25 years old and that this would be the first opportunity for the leap-year lunches he casually mentioned when she graduated. But even that brings me around to a nicely written moment: “She called people who said to call, and when she was asked for her number, which wasn’t often, she gave it, the real one. It was a sort of hope, she supposed, and let her down as hopes did.” The story is loaded with those. That’s what makes it a saxophone instead of a romcom.
I was very surprised when, during my usual googling-around to see who Kate Petersen is and what she’s up to, I found a piece in Necessary Fiction titled, “Why No One Writes Lyric Realism Anymore.” I don’t have any expertise in the technical aspects of literary criticism, so I’d be hard-pressed to define “lyric realism” but it sure sounds like this story. I shouldn’t have worried: the title belonged to a piece of fiction, not a didactic or an interview, and again she illustrates the abstract through a concrete story – pretty brilliantly, since it’s all very meta. I’ll have to keep a lookout for more; this is getting more and more interesting.