I find the violin in the third sub-basement of Elsevier’s Musical Curiosities on Mott Street. I wander in on a whim, seeking refuge from a sudden, cold rain, and stay for hours, bewitched by the sprawling shop.
The violin lies in a case marked “Special Acquisitions” and a gnome-like salesman encourages me to try it out. I haven’t played since high school, but as soon as I raise the instrument to my chin it all comes flooding back — the muscle memory, the skid-and-jump of the bow across the strings. It’s like hugging a beloved friend whom I haven’t seen in years.
The world holds its breath as I play. I saw out the gigues and sarabandes that Mr. Brochure taught me in senior music and the horas that I learned from my great aunt Borislava. My playing is rusty and rough, but I’m in heaven. Those jagged, sloppy melodies feel vital and alive. I hadn’t realized how much I miss that feeling.
When I pull the violin out from under my chin I’m not sure how much time has passed. It felt like hours, but the salesman is still standing there, nodding politely.
“Go ahead,” he says, motioning for me to keep playing.
“Oh, my mind’s made up,” I tell him. “I’ll take it.”
I leave the shop with a smile on my face.
The next weekend, my roommate Sally emerges from the darkness of her room with big headphones dangling from her neck. “Well go on then. Aren’t you going to play it for me?”
“What do you mean?” I’m wiping rosin from the fingerboard with a soft rag.
“You’ve been raving about that thing all week but I haven’t heard you play it once.”
I stare at Sally for a second, trying to work out if she’s being sarcastic. I love her to bits, but Sally doesn’t always think in the same way as other people. “What are you talking about, Sal? I spent all afternoon playing.”
“All afternoon? We only just had lunch.”
I roll my eyes. “You’ve been gaming right?” I point at her headphones. “You always lose track of time when you’re jacked into Evercrack. No wonder you didn’t hear me.”
“I haven’t been gaming,” Sally replies, a little defensively. “We finished lunch, like, five minutes ago.” She gives me a funny look. “Are you okay, Barb?”
“Seriously!” I laugh. “I’ve been playing for hours. It’s already …” The living room clock shows 1:07. “Huh. Must’ve stopped.”
But the clock is still ticking and in the kitchen the leftover pasta is still steaming.
Here’s the thing: Book One of the Fitzwilliam Violin Method contains thirty-two melodic études of increasing difficulty. Each one takes at least two minutes to play, so if you play the book straight through, without ever going back over anything, you’re talking an hour of playing, minimum. These are facts. I did the math longhand, multiplying the number of bars by the number of beats in each bar, then dividing by the tempo. I would have just timed them, but my watch is acting up. So are all the clocks in the house. My metronome isn’t working either, but I’m careful not to rush. If anything, I play the pieces slower than intended.
And yet, I can start playing at 5:59 p.m., run all thirty-two études from top to bottom, and be finished in time to catch the six o’clock news.
I just don’t get it. So I ask Sally to time me on her digital watch. She has one of those big clunky ones from the eighties and she seems pleased that I’m willing to acknowledge its superiority over my modern Timex.
The watch beeps: “Go!”
Sally keeps her eyes on the digits the whole time I’m playing, her finger poised over the button, as if this experiment is going to need split-second precision.
I blast through a couple of gigues from memory, then lower my violin.
“Are you ready?” says Sally. “Clock is running.”
“That’s good enough. How long did that take?”
Sally just blinks at me. Her eyebrows knit in confusion, so I go over to her and grab her wrist.
The seconds steadily tick by on the face of the watch: 06 … 07 … 08 … 09 … The minutes remain at 00.
“Let’s try again,” I say, my voice quivery and soft.
“We haven’t tried once yet.”
“Just … humor me, okay?
I stand by her side and watch her reset the timer. I hear the beep and watch the seconds begin to count up: … 01 … 02 … 03 …
And when I begin to play the seconds stop. The number 03 just hangs out there on the display, as if it’s got nowhere better to be. Even the tiny hundredths-of-a-second digits have come to a dead halt at 79.
I keep playing, my eyes glued to the watch face. I’m just playing random, slow notes at this point, not really thinking about it.
My eyes wander from the watch to Sally. She’s unnaturally still. I can see it now that I’m standing close to her. Her right hand hangs in the air at an awkward angle, frozen halfway between her wrist and her hip. Her lips are slightly parted, as if she’s about to say something. She’s paralyzed and oh-my-god not breathing.
As soon as I stop playing, movement returns to the world — 04 … 05 … 06 — and Sally starts to breathe again. Her hand drops to her side and she hooks a thumb through the belt loop of her jeans.
She looks up at me quizzically. “Whenever you’re ready?”
I put the violin down carefully, as if it’s a loaded weapon. “Sal,” I whisper. “Something weird is going on.”
illustration by Jamie Gaunt
I bring my fiddle to Central Park on a blustery day. The trees are noisy and writhing. Traffic on Fifth Avenue honks and blares.
But as I start to play, the world falls still and all is silent, save for my violin.
Over by the benches, a pigeon hangs in the air, mid-takeoff. It looks startled and ridiculous, a foot from the ground, its legs dangling uselessly beneath it.
A Coke can hovers just above the rim of a garbage can. Three feet away, a man stands with his hand outstretched, his fingers slightly curled from imparting spin to the can. His brows are knitted with concentration. His aim isn’t perfect, but the can’s going to go in. Just.
A jogger is caught mid-stride. She balances on the ball of her left foot, leaning forward at an impossible angle. Physics dictate that she must either thrust her right foot forward to catch her weight or topple to the ground. But she does neither. She waits there, defying gravity.
It’s so peaceful, here in this motionless Manhattan.
I play a meandering adagio, half remembered and half improvised. It doesn’t seem to matter what I play. A single note is enough to stop time, but I like to fill the silence with something more than that. It feels pure, this private music.
I yearn to stroll along the streets while I play. I would like to explore this instant in the life of New York City, but as soon as I put bow to string I find myself rooted to the spot, my legs frozen in time, like the pigeon, and the jogger, and the Coke can. In vague terror, I wonder if I’ll age faster above the waist than below. Will my boobs age and sag while my butt remains young and firm?
I bring my piece to its end. The bird flaps clumsily into the air. The Coke can bounces off the rim and rattles into the garbage. The jogger huffs and puffs on her way by. The world is full of noise and motion again.
I convince Sally of what I can do by memorizing a page of a book. She opens one of her fantasy novels to a random chapter and I begin to play slow scales while I read. Reading and playing at the same time feels like rubbing your belly while patting your head; it’s a little counterintuitive, but not impossible. So I memorize a page, and then recite it back to her verbatim.
We videotape the whole thing using my brother’s old camcorder and watch the tape on Sally’s portable TV.
Here’s what happens: Sally stands in front of me with a copy of The Dwarf Holds of Glom-Helding, her finger in a page. I raise the violin to my chin and she opens the book in front of my face. Then I touch my bow to the strings.
That’s it. I don’t even appear to glance at the book. I just lower my bow again and start reciting: “A single swing of Groondool’s axe was all it took to fell the great oak tree. He felt sorrow at its loss, but the timber would be invaluable to the armory. The trolls were advancing again, coming up from the foothills to raid the mountain passes and harry the caravans that brought gold down from Glom-Helding. All-out war was inevitable.”
“Holy shit!” says Sally, before I’m even done a paragraph. “Can I have a go?”
Sally saws away at the violin, but nothing happens. Or rather, something does happen. What happens is exactly what’s supposed to happen when a beginner plays a violin for the first time. She makes hideous screeches and yowls.
“Damn. It didn’t work did it?”
Sally looks at me as if I’ve cheated her out of something. I just shrug, but secretly I’m relieved. My secret, still moments remain my own alone.
“What a shitty super power,” Sally says, later that night, over beer. “If you could move around it’d be like teleportation. That’d be wicked.”
“I know, I know. What am I supposed to do with it? I can memorize stuff. I can think things through … but I can’t really do anything, can I?”
“If you’re ever on Jeopardy! you could ace the Daily Double.”
I laugh. “I’d still need to know the answer. It just buys me a little more time. And they’d have to let me have my violin on set!”
“Well cramming for tests would be easier,” Sally suggests. “In school you always left assignments ’til the last minute. Now you’ll have all the time you need.”
“That’s true. But it’s kind of a hassle to play the whole time I’m studying. I can’t even turn pages while time is stopped. And my arm gets tired pretty quick.”
“Hey, at least you can practice without the neighbors complaining.”
“That’s true.” I raise my glass. “To practicing!”
After that, we don’t really discuss the violin much. You’ve got to be open-minded to live with a roommate, and Sally is more open-minded than most. She accepts people as they are, and expects to be accepted in return. She has a collection of colorful vibrators that she keeps on our bookshelf; I have a violin that can stop time. Both took some getting used to, but neither is a big deal in the grand scheme of things.
Christmas is coming and Mott Street is irritatingly cheery. The little cafés advertise eggnog lattes and lights wrap every lamppost. Holiday jingles blast from every store and there are crowds of jostling tourists and herds of students from NYU. But I can window-shop in peace by playing my violin, setting up outside each store in turn like the world’s least successful busker.
As a kid, I used to raise money for my local soup kitchen by playing carols outside the liquor store at this time of year. Merry shoppers would empty their pockets into my case. There’s something about a child on a violin that breaks through people’s defenses. But nobody will ever give me money for what I play on this violin, no matter how good I get.
Elsevier’s is located just north of Prince Street, beside a grungy café called The Brass Spittoon. It’s a tall narrow building, set back from the street on an irregular lot. It’s a surprising site in lower Manhattan, where the buildings muscle right up to the sidewalks, shoving their merchandise in the faces of passers-by.
It was a surprising site, anyway. When I arrive at the address, Elsevier’s is gone. The Brass Spittoon is still there, smelling of old coffee, but beside it is a large church advertising the “only Catholic catacombs in Manhattan.”
I must have made a wrong turn. The Brass Spittoon must be a chain. My memory must be faulty. So I check the business card inside my violin case:
Elsevier’s Musical Curiosities
726 Mott Street, Manhattan
Open by Chance
I’m in the right place, but the shop is gone.
It’s easy to believe that Elsevier’s went out of business within the last two weeks, but I don’t understand how it could have been replaced by a 200-year-old church.
“Excuse me, ma’am?” I ask a nice-looking old lady. “How long has this church been here? I mean, has it always been at this location?”
“Yes, dear,” she says. “The cathedral was built in the 1700s, I believe.”
“So, it wasn’t … like … moved brick by brick from somewhere else?” I show her the business card and describe the instrument shop as best I can.
She just shrugs. “Must be a misprint, dear. Buildings don’t just disappear.”
New Year’s Eve 2000 and I’ve come to Times Square with a million other people to watch the ball drop. I’ve got an invitation to a party over in Williamsburg, but I want to be here, among the glitz and tourists. What’s the point of living in New York if you’re just going to go to a house party on New Year’s?
A doctor from Doctors Without Borders is on the big screen, and the crowd roars as she presses the button to start the ball’s sixty-second descent.
We’re packed in close and I have to shove a little to get my case open and extract my violin.
“Ten … Nine …” roars the crowd.
My scroll digs into someone’s back and she’s turning to complain as I play my first note.
Seconds from a new millennium, a million people hold their breaths in Times Square. And I play “Auld Lang Syne” into the silence.
If the prophecies of doom are correct, then this could be my last moment of happiness. It’s possible that nuclear reactors are going to explode and planes are about to fall from the sky because of old computer code that couldn’t conceive of a time this far in the future. If that comes to pass, then this moment could be the last good moment for humanity. I feel a certain obligation to enjoy it, so I play a dozen verses, twisting as best I can to look into the eyes of the people around me as I play.
These people will remember this evening as a blur of color and noise. They’ll remember the fireworks, the numb fingers, the huge puppets making their way down Broadway. But only I will remember the precise look on their faces at three seconds to midnight.
When I’m done, I grin at the woman I poked and wish her happy new year. She grins back.
It’s that moment that I remember in September. It’s that moment in Times Square that comes back to me when I notice the airplane that shouldn’t be there, flying too low and too fast over Manhattan.
I carry my violin with me everywhere these days. I rely on it the way I used to rely on cigarettes. I get it out when I’m overwhelmed, or stressed, or angry. I play on the subway and at work. I play whenever I’m running late. It doesn’t make me any earlier, but it gives me time. It gives me space to breathe. And as a result, I’m getting good again. It’s a shitty super power, I know, but I’m grateful for it all the same.
So on that morning in September, I unsling my violin and yank it from its case, barely thinking. It’s instinct by now. In moments of panic, I play, forcing the world to stand still while I get my shit together. And this is certainly a moment of panic.
I fling my empty case to the ground as I raise the instrument to my chin. It bounces on its reinforced corner and my violin sounds before it comes to rest. The case hangs in the air, about to strike the pavement again.
I gaze down Broadway, playing something simple. It’s impossible to wrap my head around what I’m seeing. It’s a long way away, but still much too close.
The stillness is almost unbearable. Instead of calming me, it heightens my anxiety. I feel the weight of this moment on my shoulders. All I have to do is stop, and everything will resolve itself, for better or for worse. As soon as I stop, my responsibility will have ended.
But I don’t stop. The people on that airplane are about to die. That much is clear. Many others may die too. But as long as I keep playing, they will still be alive.
So I play and play, stretching the moment to breaking point and beyond. I fight back waves of panic and force my arm to keep moving. It feels both important and useless.
It won’t make a difference. I know that. How long can I keep this up before I drop from exhaustion? A few hours? A day? As soon as I stop, it will have all been pointless. The future is always there waiting, with infinite patience. It will wear me down. And when I break, all my stalling won’t have made a lick of difference.
The only thing I get out of this is time to think, or pray. But I’m too rattled to think clearly, and I’ve never been a believer.
So I just play. I play the gigues and sarabandes that Mr. Brochure taught me. I play the horas that I learned from my great aunt Borislava. I play “Auld Lang Syne” and the violin part from Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.” I play scales and arpeggios and the thirty-two melodic études from Book One of the Fitzwilliam Violin Method. Before long I realize that I’m not just playing, I’m practicing. And at this moment, practice feels important. It feels as though I’m laboring, erecting a bulwark against terror.
And that’s when I think back to New Year’s. We worried about airplanes being knocked out of the sky by a computer bug. We worried about civilization falling apart due to the ticking of time — not gradually, but all at once. I think about how I stopped that ticking and memorized the faces of the people around me, just in case.
I think about buildings vanishing without a trace.
There was something triumphal about the celebrations that night. As lovers kissed and fireworks burst and bands played, we all felt that we had stared disaster in the face and won.
Will this moment turn out like that? It’s impossible to say. But just in case, I’ll keep practicing.
Julian Mortimer Smith lives in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, where he writes website copy by day and speculative fiction by night. His writing has appeared in AE, Terraform, PodCastle, Urban Fantasy Magazine, Crossed Genres, and several other markets. Look for upcoming stories in Asimov’s and Pulp Literature later this year.