Volume 15, Issue 6: Liturgia
Worth Doing Badly
Peter J. Leithart
Christine Queene wanted to be a violinist as long as she could remember. At six, she had watched the Academy of
Saint Martin in the Fields on BBC during a black and windy afternoon in an ancient ivy-covered hotel while her family
was vacationing in the Scottish Highlands. She was instantly enraptured. From that moment, the path of her life lay
before her, clear as a meadow and brightly lit. It was her Damascus Road, and she felt herself strangely warmed. It had
every feature of a religious conversion, a call of God.
She had since seen the star female violinists who prowled around the stage in tank top and hot pants playing
Vivaldi, but Christine's vision was different. Her dreams were filled, almost nightly, with the snowy TV image she had seen at
age six, a white-skinned young woman, black hair pulled into a prim bun, sitting tensely in a black evening gown with
arched back and left leg elegantly extended in front, watching Neville Marriner like a cat as she strained at the
heart-rending Adagio in Mozart's Third Concerto. She wanted to be that young woman. That young woman had been
called. The sexy violinists, Christine could tell, were just in it for the money, and she would have nothing to do with that kind of
rank commercialist sexism. Besides, she had small breasts and knock knees and looked horrid in pink.
A single obstacle stood in the way of Christine's dreams, but it was a considerable one. She was a violinist ofin
the words of one teacher"colossal," ofaccording to another"resounding," of (in the words of a third)
"spectacular" mediocrity. What was more, she had not started out mediocre. For Christine Queene, mediocrity was the product
of long years and thousands of hours of practice. Mediocrity was an achievement, and an impressive one.
Christine's recitals were disastrous. After two and a half years of training, her teacher (then the ghastly Mr.
Moresh, who, though it was long before his unfortunate confinement, was already beginning to lose his hearing and his
sanity) reluctantly agreed to put her on stage. Mortified at the prospect of performing before an audience, Christine
almost escaped beforehand, and when she began to play she wished she had. Her younger brother sat in the front row
cracking his knuckles during every slight pause in the music, while her mother sighed loudly, though whether in ecstasy or
for some other reason could not be determined. Before she had completed her first songa lively version of
"Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," with several challenging trills toward the end Christine glared at her brother, burst into
tears, and ran from the stage, tripped over her gown and fell onto her violin, sliding headfirst until she disappeared stage left.
Christine never got over her stage fright, and she never completed a recital. Few were as memorable as the first,
but her last recital, at the end of her junior year of college, was a close rival. Mr. Queene's mother, widowed and of
undisclosed and perhaps incalculable age, had been shipped over a hundred miles from her farm cottage in New Falls to
hear Christine for the first and, as things turned out, her last time. Bent with Parkinson's, The Queene Mum, as the
family called her, slouched in a wheelchair next to the front row and simulated clapping with her clawed hand when
Christine came onstage. Christine scratched and screeched through her repertoire. Though The Queene Mum was aged,
her hearing had remained nearly perfect, and she had played the viola herself in her youth. Parkinson's notwithstanding,
The Queene Mum nearly fled the scene after the first few bars.
The climax of the recital was to be the Brahms Violin Sonata #1, with piano accompaniment provided by a
skinny sophomore so thickly freckled that he seemed to belong to a different species, whose fingers pounded like pistons
over the keys. Toward the middle of the first movement, The Queene Mum decided that something must be done and
that she was the one to do it. Gathering her strength into a single ball of energy, she twisted suddenly in her
wheelchair, which, apparently happy to cooperate in ending the recital, tipped dangerously to the side. Mr. Queene, sitting in
the aisle seat, saw her starting to go over, and jumped to his feet with a loud cry. Christine's concentration was broken,
and the freckled boy at the piano fell backward off his bench, dislocating his shoulder. He gamely offered to continue
the recital, but bowed to the wisdom of others and was taken off to the emergency room. The Queene Mum was unhurt,
and left the concert supremely satisfied. She died, two years later, a happy woman.
Christine is now married to Alvin Wendell, who manages the TruValue Hardware Store on the outskirts of
Three Points, and has three teen-aged children. She has not picked up a violin in twenty-three years. She is no longer haunted
by the BBC program, but her dream, shattered by some merciful power into some millions of pieces, each as small
and unnoticed as a chromosome, still flows through her with each heartbeat and fills her with each breath.