Fiddlers, by Denton Loving

Wrapped in heavy coats and scarves, the people of Fireside huddled together on the sidewalks. A steady line of sleet fell over them, and yet they sang and waited for the lights as they did every year. In a few places, they spilled onto the grass. Their voices joined the children’s choir from the Mountain View Methodist Church singing We Wish You a Merry Christmas.

Mayor Aldor Pursifull stood on the courthouse steps ready to welcome the crowd. Like the townspeople, he too waited for something. As if he could wish away all of his disappointments of the past year. As if he could experience again the joy and excitement he had felt as a child on the night of the tree lighting.

He scanned the crowd for his wife Scarlett. They hadn’t seen each other or spoken since breakfast when she said she had no interest in attending the lighting or the concert.

“I’m the mayor for Christ’s sake,” he had said, and she said nothing.

After all three verses and an extra chorus, Aldor stepped closer to the microphone. “Tonight, we’re very pleased to welcome the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra back to Fireside,” he said. The crowd sounded a muffled clap. “They’ll begin their concert inside the theater auditorium in just a few minutes. But first, all together, let’s count down from five and light the town!”

Aldor had been mayor for less than three months, but he had practiced and reenacted the simple speech for this night since he was a young boy. He used nearly the same words his grandfather spoke when he had been mayor, and tonight, the old man’s voice echoed in Aldor’s ears stronger than usual. It was on a winter night when the trees were lighted years ago when his grandfather pulled Aldor on stage, planting the notion that Aldor would someday be mayor. Now, Aldor stood on stage alone.

“Five!” he started, and the crowd started counting with him. “Four. Three. Two. One!”

As planned, David Speers, the town’s head of maintenance, threw a breaker from somewhere unseen. The town square was completely illuminated in a moment of brilliance. The square’s three biggest trees were each lit with thousands of orbs of white light. The largest, a fifty-foot pine, wore a star of lights at its peak. Around the courthouse, facing Main Street, a nativity scene came to life. On the courthouse’s other side, facing State Street, a life-sized Santa appeared with a team of reindeer. They glowed, and Rudolph’s nose really was bright enough to stop traffic, even in the falling sleet. Elsewhere around the square, lines of Christmas lights webbed over bushes, lined walkways, wound around lamp posts. The golden glow transformed the town into something more magical than it was.

Then, a red flash colored the sky like fireworks. For a second, Aldor could see every individual drop of ice as it fell. Christmas lights blinked twice and died. The street lights went dark, too. Across the street, the theater where the symphony would perform faded into blackness. The town felt darker than Aldor ever remembered it.

A woman screamed. Then Aldor heard laughter and talking. Confusion ran through the crowd as people decided whether to stay or leave. Aldor leaned into the microphone, forgetting its power was lost, too. He attempted to speak loudly, to tell everyone to go into the auditorium across the street to get out of the cold. No one heard him, but they pressed across the street anyway and through the auditorium’s doors.

Aldor called David, but the call went straight to voicemail. He wasn’t sure exactly what his mayoral duty was in a situation like this. Stepping down from his perch at the microphone, he thought about Scarlett but dialed David again instead.

“Transformer blew,” David answered, as if that explained everything. “Worked fine when we tested it today. Power company’s on the way. Probably take about thirty minutes.”

“We’ve got the whole damn symphony here waiting to go on. The whole town’s waiting.”

“I know,” David said with his typical lack of urgency.

“Well, get the lights back on fast,” Aldor said. He should have known this night would be just as complicated and troublesome as everything else was about this town. He wished he had never run for mayor.

He had not expected so many roadblocks in the pursuit of political service. Firemen threatened to strike. Rogue committees formed about proper use of parks and playgrounds. There were always difficult decisions to make about budgets. People were never satisfied. Even if he had forecasted any of these dilemmas, he never could have expected everything to happen at the same time. No honeymoon at all. Within the first six weeks, the roads crumbled, the water supply became contaminated, and the tree lighting was almost cancelled because of insufficient funds. Problem after problem was solved, but no one was ever happy, even when they got what they wanted. Damn it to hell if he hadn’t found the money for the annual Christmas tree lighting—the town’s longest-standing tradition—and it still blew up in his face. This was the one thing that should have been fun, should have been easy, the one thing everyone could enjoy without complication. But apparently not on his watch.

All of those people cramming into the auditorium had been testing him, comparing him to the old man, his grandfather. The only one he trusted was David, and it felt as if even David had failed him—David or the weather or the dark, bloody forces of Christmas.

His grandfather had always said after town meetings, “They’re like the demons of Legion driven into the hogs and gone wild.” Aldor hadn’t understood what that meant until these past months.

Now, in the old theater’s warmth, he realized how cold he was. The exposed skin on his face throbbed. His overcoat shouldered ice crystals.

The theater’s built-in emergency lights had kicked on. They weren’t bright, but they produced a welcoming glow. Church ladies handed out cookies and hot chocolate. Student volunteers ushered people into the auditorium with flashlights, as if they were all arriving late for a movie that had already started. People felt their way down dark aisles, tripping over and bumping into one another as they found seats and waited for the power and the symphony.

The noise of instruments welcomed Aldor back stage. The musicians used lights from their phones while they either tuned their instruments or placed last touches on their wardrobe of black and white. He heard pieces of conversations, including someone foisting crackers on a clarinet player car sick from the mountain roads leading to Fireside.

Aldor found the conductor and explained the situation.

“I’ll send someone out to play a few songs to keep the crowd from leaving,” the conductor said. The man squinted while they talked, as if his eyes would not adjust.

A beautiful violinist adjusted her strings. She reminded him of someone, but he couldn’t think who. The violinist sat so steady on the edge of her folding chair, the left side of her chin resting against the instrument, her right hand lifting the bow, pushing at the strings as if it was the bow that pulled her arm instead of the other way around.

“There’s something magic about a woman fiddler,” Aldor’s grandfather used to say. Then, he’d look at Aldor as if the boy ought to know what was hidden behind his thick eyebrows and the lilt in his voice, when in truth, Aldor wouldn’t know for many years what his grandfather meant.

Being mayor was the same way. All his life, Aldor had trained for the job. He thought he’d been listening carefully to his grandfather, thought he had watched and learned. But now in the chair, Aldor didn’t think his grandfather had given him much useful advice.  Such as when his grandfather warned him to never ramrod his own ideas: “The key to herding cats is to allow them to believe it’s their idea to trot along in the direction you want.” Aldor’s grandfather always seemed in charge of every part of his life. It wasn’t until now that Aldor understood how even the best of wins came with compromise, and many compromises felt no better than total defeats. Aldor had learned in the past months that he couldn’t control anything. Not as mayor, and not in life.

Aldor’s dad had been wise to spend his life selling pharmaceuticals, repeatedly escaping these mountains for the open road. He had sidestepped this town’s burdensome call, leaving Aldor to pick up his grandfather’s mantle. Now, his father lounged pool-side enjoying early retirement in South Florida.

Two of the French horn players, a woman and a man, had already gone on stage. They stood in front of the red-velour curtains while one of the volunteers held a flashlight over a music stand with sheet music.

“Do you want to rock with a couple of French horn players?” the woman finally said to the crowd. There were a few cheers and some clapping. Both players touched horn to mouth and played Brenda Lee’s Rocking Around the Christmas Tree.

Aldor eased back through the auditorium and into the lobby. Most of the crowd had cleared, either taken seats in the auditorium or gone home for the night. Outside, the headlights of the power company’s truck shone against the courthouse. He couldn’t see clearly, but he knew the bucket was raising a man to the blown transformer.

Then Aldor recognized his wife. It was her back that he saw. He identified her red dress and her timber brown hair, the long, severe lines of her body.

He was glad she had come out for the tree-lighting, and he bee-lined toward her to tell her. He wanted to suggest that, when the power was restored, they have their picture taken with Santa. He remembered a picture of her in a sexy pose with Santa from a trip they had taken to Vegas the first year they were married. In the photo, she sat sideways with her knees folded in the air like a pin-up girl. That picture had been misplaced or lost, or more likely destroyed. She would never allow a picture like that to be shot again, but he hoped she might agree to a more modest picture of them both with Santa to send as their Christmas cards.

When it was too late to go another direction, he saw Scarlett talking to Dr. Trice, an internist who had moved to Fireside from Boston. Dr. Trice and Aldor had the same habit of running in the mornings, and sometimes the two wound up running together. Trice was well meaning enough and a good doctor by all accounts, but Aldor preferred running with him over talking to him. Trice was unable to talk about the place where he had volunteered to live unless it was through a backhanded compliment. Aldor also didn’t like the way Scarlett changed when she spoke to the doctor. Her voice raised an octave. She pretended she didn’t have a Southern accent. She hung on the doctor’s every word.

Aldor said, “I see the weather couldn’t keep you away, Trice.”

“I had to see this for myself,” the doctor said. “I never imagined a place like this would bring a symphony orchestra to perform for the town. Talk about bringing high culture to the people. Really, it’s fantastic.”

“It’s interesting about high culture,” Aldor said. He could feel the blood rushing to his ears; he imagined them glowing pink. Scarlett instantly glared. “Who decides what’s high and what isn’t? I think I’d prefer to just sit around a fire with a gang of fiddlers and a jug of shine.”

He was laying it on thick because the doctor’s ignorance bugged him. The entire time they had known each other, Trice spoke of Boston as a foreign country. He never bothered to ask Aldor if he knew Boston for himself, just assuming he hadn’t and couldn’t. In return, Aldor never volunteered he had seen the Red Sox play at Fenway, he had bar-hopped up and down Boylston and Beacon Streets, he had sat under the shady trees of Harvard Yard.

Before either Trice or Scarlett spoke, Aldor turned to leave. Scarlett’s same pained look clouded her face that morning when they spoke about the tree lighting. “You act like this is a big deal,” she had said.

“The tree-lighting? It is a big deal. It’s tradition. It’s something I loved as a kid. I want you to see how beautiful it is.”

“Not just the tree-lighting. This job. Being mayor. It’s embarrassing.”

“It’s a part-time position,” he argued, “for a town with a population of less than three thousand people. Why do you care?”

“I don’t,” she said, but they both knew she had lied. She wanted him working in corporate finance, preferably in a city like Charlotte or Atlanta, instead of approving loans at a branch office in Fireside. She wanted out of this backwoods mountain town. He had worked all day long to bury that fact, but it came barreling back at him now.

He could imagine his wife apologizing to Trice for him and explaining how much stress the position of mayor had turned out to be. If he left them alone long enough, he wondered if they would decide to leave town together and give him some peace. The idea didn’t upset him as much as he thought it should.

The French horns continued to play. A moment earlier, he had heard Deck the Halls, and now they belted out Jingle Bell Rock. He looked around the darkened auditorium. He was prepared for signs of discontent, but there were none. The house was nearly full. People sang along or talked with their neighbors. Kids played between the seats. One small fellow in front of him slid under the chairs from one row to another, playing peek-a-boo with anyone who would pay attention.

Aldor entered the back stage area, his cell in hand, ready to call David again. His eyes scanned the room for the violinist.

“What’s going on out there?” he asked when David answered.

“It’ll be another five minutes. Sing a verse of Silent Night, and we ought to be done.”

Aldor looked for the conductor, but his eyes fell on the violinist again, lovely in her black dress, looking soft but self-assured. She reminded him of a girl named Libby he would have dated when he was in college if things with Scarlett hadn’t already been serious. His family liked Scarlett. He believed they were on a path he could see to the end, and he was frightened to cut a new trail. Of course, in those days, before he brought her to live in Fireside, Scarlett had been a different person. Not so angry. Not so judgmental.

He hadn’t seen that girl from school in almost a decade. They had never dated, but they hung out together between finance classes, drinking coffee, talking about everything except their mutual attraction to each other. Over the years, she had grown to symbolize his missed opportunities.

The movement of her arm slowed and then stopped, the note from the instrument fading softly away, as the violinist turned her eyes to him, and he realized he had stood staring at her for too long.

“I was looking for the conductor,” Aldor said. “They say another five minutes. You all can start as soon as we power up again. And again, I’m so sorry for the delay.”

“It’s okay,” she said. Her voice was as resonant as her instrument. “We’re used to these kinds of glitches. Please don’t stress on our account. It sounds like a cliché, but everything works out the way it’s supposed to.”

She smiled to indicate her sympathy for his obvious distress. He wondered if such a small but genuine sense of kindness could be enough to get him through the rest of the night. He allowed himself a final glance at the violinist before he slipped out a side door that led to a packed parking lot.

Outside, the sleet was heavier, and it came down faster. It hit the windshields and car roofs with soft pings. It collected on cars and trees and lights. Everywhere.

Aldor stole around the building until he could see the courthouse and the square, still in darkness. The diesel engine of the bucket truck echoed across the lawn. Before he was prepared for it, the lights came back on. The Christmas trees, the Nativity Scene, Santa and the reindeer. He could see every inch of Fireside. He thought the intensity would blind him.

*

Denton Loving is the author of the poetry collection, Crimes Against Birds (Main Street Rag).  He is also the editor of Seeking Its Own Level: an anthology of writings about water (MotesBooks).  He teaches at Lincoln Memorial University, where he co-founded the annual Mountain Heritage Literary Festival and drafthorse: the literary journal of work and no work.  His fiction, poetry, essays and reviews have recently appeared in River Styx, CutBank, The Kenyon Review and The Chattahoochee Review. Follow him on twitter @DentonLoving.

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