A short story by Jamie Fisher
“A healthy performing arts community is music to our ears,” the advertisement said, and in the lower right-hand corner was a picture of the old philanthropist. Surely in her seventies in this one, I thought; the woman had gone vaguely Asian in appearance with the eye-narrowing effects of old age, lips mauved and stretched in a hidden-tooth smile that showed nothing but tooth-colored gums. Her hair—blatantly red now—was fixed in a long bob that drew its corners in around her ears. It made me sad to think that this was the image she would present to the world from now on, ten years past her death, and even twenty years later the philharmonic’s programs would show the same face.
It had been so long since I returned to the cramped concert hall, with its lovingly uncomfortable red cushions, dark as her lipstick. It had been even longer since I returned to this small Southern town, where the air always smelled powerfully of new-cut grass and thick ripened palm-berries, where nothing comes quickly except hardship and gossip. Certainly we gossiped enough about the old philanthropist. Like Proust’s madeleine, the strong magazine smell of the program, the incandescent globes dimming on her dated photograph, the Sibelius quickening like a pulse in the first movement—all of these things together and even their separate pieces were enough to make me reflect on the old woman: her life and circumstances and what we made of them, we young and foolish and old and clever Southerners, we with too much time on our hands, the Sibelius settling now like a large cool hand over my forehead and the meter jarring me, like the stroke of a canoe’s paddle, down memory.
Mrs. Eders and the Old Philanthropist
Our first encounter was unconsummated. Like the other girls at the strings camp, I had learned “Happy Birthday” in about ten minutes without sheet music; then Mrs. Eders had led the four of us from the camp’s performing space and up to the old philanthropist’s birthday function.
Was it nearly twenty years ago since that August? She must have been turning fifty. We waited outside the ballroom for an hour as waiters passed with unnameable hors d’oeuvres on plates thin and silverly as compact discs. Four middle-schoolers in uncomfortable dresses and suits, the bass player supporting her instrument a little helplessly before giving up and laying it along the tile. We had nothing to say to each other; we barely knew each other at all, though the cellist would stalk me later. I studied the lovely wayward patterns of a red glass vase, like a flower collapsing in the middle from its own sensuality.
The philanthropist knew, I think, the artist. When I paid attention to the world again, my pinky was cramping from dangling the rental bow and the strings of the viola pressed under my armpit had left grillmarks all along my forearm. The philanthropist never came.
“Well, that’s how it happens, guys,” Mrs. Eders said to us with her good-natured smile and customary shrug.
She was as trustable and fatalistic as a rabbi. Mrs. Eders was in those days infallible, grandmotherly with her grainy pale hair and golden spectacles, her stomach sagging through her black cocktail dress like a heap of slag drifting down a quieted volcano. With a smile she could make anything right. I was surprised later to learn that many of my classmates had found the woman intolerable.
“You don’t remember how she was always telling stories?” Jordan asked me in high school. She was a pretty girl with a snub nose, an ovaline Mediterranean face, and a curtain of barretted brown hair. “We never got to play!”
“They were good stories,” I said. I couldn’t remember any noticeable swathes of time being stolen and I often, in fact, doubted that Jordan genuinely liked anyone. They were all true stories, too.
Mrs. Eders once pretended to vomit into a white paper bag after one class’s lackadaisical practice; Mrs. Eders and her cohorts once found a poorly-made Chinese violin in the music room’s closet and the four women took turns stomping on it, right in front of their students’ eyes; Mrs. Eders didn’t speak a word until she was four years old, in the family sedan on the way to church.
“When’s lunch?” Mrs. Eders asked. Her father nearly drove the car into a ditch. The woman was, simply, mythology.
She patted us on the backs as we headed back down into the practice room, giving an especially hearty pat to the cellist and long-suffering bass. It was just as well. I had already forgotten how to play “Happy Birthday.”
“Come on, folks,” Mrs. Eders said as we retreated down the stairs, her voice shouting off the sides of the stairwell. “There’s always next year, and you can play for your parents on their birthdays too.”
We had the impression that Mrs. Eders and the old philanthropist did not get along well. Mrs. Eders had been one of the original quartet of musicians who founded what became our philharmonic; it was the old philanthropist who came late to the venture. She swept into town with her husband and injected it with capital in a single vicious thrust, like a mother stabbing her child’s thigh with an EpiPen. The quickness of it all made both sides uneasy.
There were rumors when Mrs. Eders announced her retirement that the old philanthropist had done it, rumors which our teacher cheerfully rejected without addressing directly, flapping her veiny hand at the class.
“Oh, no,” she said with a grin. “I’m tired of all this. My husband and I, we’re just going to head into the Canadian wilderness, hitch us to a few backpacks, and get our provisions helicoptered in once a week. That’s the last you’ll hear of us, folks.” “You won’t even bring your violin?” a student asked. “You know,” she said, stroking her chin. “I just might.”
We had no doubt that she would do it, too, except that another orchestra teacher died suddenly of cancer—sudden to us, probably less sudden to that shrewd and resourceful woman—and Mrs. Eders agreed to take her place for a year. After that, true to her word, we didn’t hear from her for years.
The Voice of the Old Philanthropist
The first time I heard the voice of the old philanthropist was at the philharmonic’s twenty-fifth anniversary. Famous aging personae were shipped in; one woman with blond Louis XIV tresses sang her an operatic “Happy Birthday,” comically running out of breath on her long and illustrious name. The music students and our families, free admission tickets crumpled in our fists, crowded the back seats and squinted at the stage, squinted at the squinting wealthy elderly in the balconies and front row. I was there with my mother. A long white screen crinkled down over the stage, the projector droning to life, and there in faint blue was the squat face of the old philanthropist, blinking with froggy disorientation at us all.
“I just want to say what a pleasure this is,” she told us.
She was presumably up in the balconies somewhere, beaming down at us in her severe red dress, her pink forearms sagging out of short sleeves and her neck bulging harmlessly out of the high Chinese collar. One of her eyes was higher than the other; the Hershey’s Kiss-colored eyebrows were penciled in.
She talked for a rambling while on important things. (“Art is a business,” for example. And, “A business both requires and deserves a great deal of money.”) Her voice was unexpectedly light, childlike, quick. We could barely hear her at all. “How ironic,” my mother whispered into my ear. “What?” I asked her. Her reply was lost in the sudden din of applause. Although, knowing my mother, it was possibly she never answered me at all, just moving her lips maddeningly to make me think she had spoken.
The old philanthropist was retreating into the ceiling in a narrow blue slice, smiling with nervous benevolence as her forehead and nose and lips were eaten away. My mother was in those days a pretty woman. Never beautiful, it must be admitted, but pretty, and degenerating into tolerable in her later years. I have always, always been honest. She had my sunny cheeks and similar hair: curly, but easily persuaded otherwise. It was ginger-colored and lay limp across her face in those hot summer months, heat like a neighborhood in which we lived, always. Her eyes the size of thumbprints from small fingers, her raspy trustable voice. Though of course we couldn’t trust a word she said, my father and I, she being a housewife and unsuccessful poet, inclined to scare us with the words she chose.
“The moon was howling green tonight,” she would say, clipping the screen door shut. “At the office today”—that was what she called it, at first drolly and then without interest, the separate bedroom where she slept and worked, with its robin’s egg walls and untouched white linens—“at the office today we had a pair of starlings wander in, like they’d lost the trick of flying. Just pecking at the window like the wind was weighing heavy on them. So I’ve let them in.” She would come in from the porch at ten o’clock or later with her flashlight and her notebook, the infinite circle of her cigarette, a long papery dimension, rolled up into her hand. I pitied my mother with the endless pity of the young. I assumed in those days that she was always lonely, always writing, always waiting for someone to answer in her own language. “Oh darling,” she said flatly. “You’re home. Did you find the Italian in the fridge?”
The Memoirs of the Old Philanthropist
I mention all this because of the memoirs and my mother’s response to them, which I think were particularly telling. The old philanthropist released her memoirs when was just past sixty. Almost all the old rumors were proven true and expanded upon.
Her husband had inspired “Mad Men,” she said; she had grown up the poor child of a ceiling-fan mogul, put out of work with the invention of air-conditioning and yet, she wrote movingly, “unwilling to acknowledge the persistent push of changing times”; she built the manatee preserve in her backyard after the terribly photogenic slaughter of eighty-three, when a hurricane came thrashing through and lifted several dozen sea-cows out of the water, their muzzles leering and dripping as they spun silver-whiskered through the air and broke every watching heart. The author’s photo showed her in the preserve with goggles and wet slices of red hair plastered to her forehead, smiling with her white teeth, her left arm circumnavigating the obese scarred side of Charlie, who looked at the camera with mournful eyes the size of scallops.
Melanoma was the old philanthropist’s explanation; we had our own theories about her husband’s death. Some said uncharitably that she had personally bent down each night, uncapped her veneers, and sucked his neck bloodless as he slept. He died so young, the old people said, just in his forties. And look how vigorous and hale his widow was!
In the middle section of the book were pictures of her with various retired presidents and South African leaders and manatees, but also a photograph of the old philanthropist, then quite young, with her husband on the beach. She was still short, if not shorter, but without vaguely Asiatic features; her face looked small, sweet and pale, her hair dark curls lively. He was a tall man with a forehead like the prow of a cruise ship, a knob of skull protruding whitely forward from under the tanned skin, the skin beaten with enough gold and red to make melanoma believable. He wore a red-and-white striped polo and khaki pants belted nearly to the armpits. He had a trusting nineteen-fifties smile. How could you kill a man like that? I asked my mother. I was home from college then, no longer a viola player but still a violist, still so certain that I had the right to judge the old philanthropist and everyone else. I showed her the picture. She traced the long strong line where their hands drew their arms close. Then she touched the cord of tendon jarring from his brown neck.
“Oh, I have no doubt she killed him,” my mother said. “Look at his eyes. Look at the neck. He was dead from the moment he married her.”
The Newspaper and the Old Philanthropist
The day she retired the local newspaper ran three articles alongside her announcement: an announcement of the elementary school’s fundraiser; a warning of whales beaching themselves violently along the north coast; and a columnist asking plaintively, “Should Stupid Be a Crime?” But the paper wasn’t done with her yet. Several months later, Mrs. Eders began to send letters to the editor. They were quite possibly not by Mrs. Eders; we strongly suspected that she was long dead. The letters came in and in, my mother mailing them to me—the last two pages of the newspaper, neatly folded into thirds, and bound with a rubber band no bigger than the mouth of a beer bottle—and circling in blue pen Mrs. Eders’s reputed contributions. “I continue to question X’s commitment to the arts,” she wrote. “Can the community at this time afford to invest in diamond-encrusted bluebirds for the museum’s spring opening?” she wrote. “Why not spend the money on something long-lasting, something not intended merely to awe snowbirds?” “Why not invest in music?” she wrote.
The sentiments were hers, but the vocabulary was not—the delicacy that didn’t seem anything like her plainspoken way—and I soon threw the newspapers out. Within a week, my mother was sending me the old philanthropist’s rebuttals. These were circled in cherry red.
“No one has supported the arts more fervently than I,” she wrote. “Art is a business,” she wrote. “Businesses need money. Money comes from donors, and it shouldn’t matter where these donors come from. I pity Eders’s petty regionalism.” “I do invest in music,” she wrote. “I invest more than any retired music teacher could possibly understand, or be capable of providing.” These I could not throw away. I pored over them, page-long diatribes, as if they were trashy novels.
This was authentically her, that woman, these words peeling her open and showing her unflattering innards. I imagined the old philanthropist bent over her desk, writing angrily, impeccably dressed, the head of her desk lamp tilted close to her red hair.
“A handsome woman,” my father once called her. So worked up over old rivalries! Over false fire, too: what she must clearly have recognized as false fire and pursued anyway. Someone had known her well enough to know that Mrs. Eders would be enough to make her respond, even knowing that she knew it could not be a real Mrs. Eders at all. Here was the proof that, as we said, the old philanthropist was jealous of those who made things.
Now I could see it all clearly. She sponsored them; she loved them; she hated them. She had attended a small nondescript college in the Deep South or perhaps some wayward school in the misbegotten dairy lands; she had never gotten any closer to the metropolis from the day she was born, nor did culture want anything to do with her except in the form of her supremely cultured husband. It was her pleasure and her burden to finance talent and never, by buying, get any closer to possessing it. Because the alternative, of course, was to find that the arts didn’t need people like her at all.
“I do invest in music,” she wrote. “The arts, like young infants, must be encouraged. They need food, water, shelter. They would flounder on their own.”
Death and the Old Philanthropist
When she died at last of a long unexpected illness in a wet summer, the manatees came to bear her away. Dark bulbous blots in a shrouded sky, drifting heavily as crippled balloons, their bodies curled and coy as shrimps, their paddled feet wide as ladies’ fans. They came from nowhere at all, people said—clearly untrue, because the water level sank ten inches in the bay, despite the rain, between that morning and the settling of night. If the trees had risen up we would have seen the dank holes in our lawns.
The manatees were plucked out of the water, the self-healing river of grass which leaves no holes behind and seals its own wet wounds. Through the air, one by one like the beads of a rosary. A nurse opened the hospital windows and three of the smaller manatees floated through. One snuffled lightly at her dead face. Another lowered itself to the level of the starched white hospital bed; the third hustled her gently onto this manatee’s round patient back with its petal-like hands. The old philanthropist’s legs sprawled indecently. You could see the yellow stains along her fleshy inner thighs where she had wet herself, the nurse later told me. Out the window and into the curdled sky, flying in a gray tilting flock with the old philanthropist at the head of the V. Over the windless streets with their humidity clutched tight by the asphalt; over the cabbage palms and sagging park benches; over the tourists’ green-and-brown trolleys and the cars simmering in their own exhaust, shining red as lobsters in their clean boil; over the worst parts of town, where the model homes collapsed half-naked into the sea-oats; over all of this and out into a flat pane of sea, her paper hospital gown slinking down to set on the surface of the ocean, the dense salty window where we never really saw anything anyway, and who are we to know?