“Hello there,” the older man mumbled as Chapin sauntered across his lawn.
What can I do for you this morning?”
He stepped around an empty wheelbarrow and handed Barnicle his business card. “I recently moved here from Springwater and opened a studio on 92nd Street and thought I’d introduce myself and let folks know I’m open for business.”
Barnicle glanced at the card which identified Malcolm Chapin as an award-winning violinist who offered private lessons at reasonable rates. “You any good?” he asked.
“Good enough for what I charge.”
“Well, I am afraid I am a little old to start learning how to play the fiddle, but I suppose some folks around here with little ones might be interested in your services.”
“Oh, I assumed you had some kids because of what you’re doing here,” he said, glancing at the crude shell of a midget racing car that the man was earnestly sanding in his driveway.
He chuckled. “No, as a matter of fact, this is all mine. It’s a soapbox derby car.”
“So I can see. But isn’t that a race for kids?”
“It is but for the past four years we’ve had this event at the park down the street that’s strictly for grown-ups—or at least people who claim to be older than twenty-one. It’s kind of a crazy afternoon with all kinds of people competing in all kinds of different cars that they’ve made themselves or with the help of their friends. All the money that’s raised from the entry fees goes to the Hobgood Children’s Hospital, so it’s definitely for a worthy cause. But the main appeal is that you get to act like a thirteen-year-old again.”
“I’ve heard of worse things a person can do in his spare time,” he said as he started to leave.
“You should enter a car yourself,” Barnicle told him. “You’d definitely meet a lot of people there with kids.”
“Oh, I don’t doubt that. But I wouldn’t know the first thing about constructing one. When it comes to doing things around the house, I’m all thumbs I’m afraid.”
“Really, it’s a lot easier than it looks.”
“Maybe to you it is but not to me.”
“Well, give it some thought, and if you decide to give it a go, I’ll be glad to give you a hand in building your rig.”
He grinned. “I appreciate the offer but I don’t think that’s something I’m likely to get involved in.”
“Suit yourself,” he replied. “But you know where to find me if you change your mind.”
His shoulders swaying, his right foot scraping the pavement, Chapin finished a furious rendition of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” then went right into another old mountain tune in which his fiddle seemed to chirp like a mockingbird. Close to a dozen people had gathered around to listen. Some stayed through an entire song, some even two or three, but most moved on after a few bars, shyly dropping some change into his violin case. He had not played his fiddle on a streetcorner in years, not since he was in college and did it then only to earn his rent money. But ever since he arrived in town a couple of months ago, he had been out playing nearly every day to let people know about his studio. He left open his violin case so people could toss in some spare change but what he really hoped they would do was take one of his business cards. But few did, fewer even than left money. Still, he continued to go out and play, as well as hand out his cards door to door, convinced that eventually he would drum up some business.
“You know ‘Old Joe Clark?'” someone asked after he paused to take sip from his water bottle.
“Sure,” he replied, idly plucking a note on his fiddle.
“How about playing it then?”
Raising his bow to his fiddle, he obliged the request, tearing into the old chestnut as if it were the first time he had played it. The woman who made the request smiled, her immense body awkwardly moving in time with the music, and he smiled back, hoping she would take a card.
Despite all the times he had played outdoors the past two weeks, he still could not believe it was really he and not someone else out there. Only a couple of months ago he had been at Alexander Hamilton High School, giving violin lessons and teaching classes in music appreciation. He had been there four and a half years, until he was summarily dismissed during spring break. He could not believe it anymore than he could believe he was now standing on a corner playing his fiddle.
One afternoon, while giving a lesson to a contentious student who seldom ever did what he was told, he lost his temper and shook the boy by the shoulders, inadvertently banging his head against the chalk board. Clearly he was wrong and, as expected, the boy told his parents, who complained to the principal. He expected to be suspended without pay for a couple of days, perhaps even a week, but instead he was terminated. The past two years, reports of abusive teachers in other schools had periodically appeared in the media, so Mrs. Fulwiler, the principal, decided such conduct would not be tolerated at Hamilton. He was stunned by her decision, futilely tried to persuade her to change her mind, but she was adamant that what he had done was inexcusable. He agreed, but still didn’t believe he deserved to lose his job.
“My my, I didn’t expect to find you playing out here,” Barnicle remarked after Chapin finished “Rhapsody in Blue” to sporadic applause.
“Neither did I, to be honest.”
“Haven’t you recruited any students yet?”
“There are a couple prospects, but you can never be sure.”
“I don’t know the first thing about music but you sound too good to be playing outside a shopping mall.”
Chapin smiled, idly tapping his bow against the side of his knee.
“You give anymore thought to entering the Adults Only Derby?”
“No, can’t say that I have.”
“Some people are coming over to my place tonight for some advice about the construction of their cars. Why don’t you stop by and I can show you what is involved in making one. It’s really not that difficult.”
“Oh, I don’t know.”
“Hell, you might as well,” he insisted. “Who knows? You might even round up a couple more prospects for your studio.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“No, you’ve already done that. Just come by and see if what we’re doing interests you, and if not, I promise I won’t bother you again.”
Not really having anything better to do, he wandered over to Barnicle’s house that evening and found him showing four members of a Lutheran social club how to construct a dependable coaster. Parts were scattered all over his work bench, along with the handful of tools needed to put them together. Chapin half listened to what he had to say, however, still not the least bit interested in making his own car.
“What brings you here?” one of the Lutherans inquired after Barnicle introduced him as a newcomer to town.
“Oh, I just got bored with what I was doing,” he stammered.
“And what was that?”
Not wishing to disclose that he had lost his teaching position, he quickly said, “I was writing copy for an advertising firm.”
“You going to look for a job here in advertising?”
He shook his head. “I’ve been writing copy long enough,” he said, continuing to lie. “Now I’d like to see if I can make some money as a musician again.”
Others, during the course of the evening, probed further and, almost reflexively, he continued to fabricate things about himself. He said he occupied the first chair in the Minneapolis Pops Orchestra for a season, said he had lived in Paris for six months and once shared a stage with Stephane Grappelli, said he had toured all over Europe, said he had sat in on a recording session with Alison Krauss and Union Station. All the things he wished he had done he said, and they believed him. Not one of them, including Barnicle, voiced any doubts about his many claims. He was surprised how satisfying it was to know that others could believe he was capable of doing all these unusual things. To them, he was not a disgraced music teacher, but rather someone to be respected and admired.
It was far more interesting to construct a whole new identity, he reckoned, than it was to construct some playground car. Indeed, the only reason he would continue to visit Barnicle was so he could add more details to his colorful new past.
“This may sound a little strange,” Barnicle remarked one night to Chapin while helping him align the wheels of his cobalt blue car, “but some folks believe it helps to scream when you’re going down the course because it gives you a smoother ride.”
“They think the screaming mitigates against the vibrations of the cars as they roll down the course.”
“You believe that?”
He shrugged. “It can’t hurt I figure so you may as well do it.”
Another driver, Ammons, looked up from his teardrop-shaped car and said, “I scream my lungs out when I go down the hill but I think it has more to do with my nerves than improving my chances of going any faster.”
Barnicle chuckled. “Ain’t that the truth.”
“I know that’s why I’d be hollering,” Chapin admitted, slowly revolving the left front wheel of his car.
“You probably won’t make a peep,” Ammons predicted. “You’ll be so focused, just as you must’ve been when you played the national anthem at Yankee Stadium.”
At once, he imagined the enormous degree of concentration such a performance would have required, as if he had really played there. Then he smiled to himself, almost remembering something that never occurred. It was not the first time he had nearly convinced himself he had performed one of the remarkable things he had claimed. Indeed, the more claims he made the more he began to believe they were actually part of his past.
Certainly those he spun his stories to believed him. Before long, a picture of him playing his fiddle on a corner appeared in the neighborhood paper accompanied by a lengthy article listing the many venues where he had performed in Europe and North Africa. It seemed right somehow, as if he really deserved all the attention he received. No longer was he a dismissed music teacher. Now he was someone others recognized and wished to emulate. More and more people stopped to listen to him play, and many of them took one of his cards. He even acquired a few students, eager to learn from someone who said he had performed with Grappelli.
“Remember, this isn’t really a race,” Barnicle reminded Chapin as they hauled their cars in his pickup truck. “It’s just an excuse to have a few laughs and raise some money for a good cause.”
“If it’s not a race, why does everyone call it one?”
“Just a figure of speech. No trophies or ribbons are handed out. The only goal other than to have a good time is to finish your run.”
He laughed nervously. “I should be able to do that.”
“You should have no problem after what you did the other day,” he said, referring to the trial run Chapin made on the small slope behind Barnicle’s garage. “Just avoid hitting any bumps and you’ll do just fine.”
“I hope so.”
“No problem,” he assured him. “Then, when you’re through, you can mingle with the crowd and pass out your cards and maybe play your fiddle. And I bet by the end of the day you’ll have enough students to fill a damn classroom.”
The thought of a classroom suddenly made his pulse race, reminding him of all the musty spaces he had taught in over the years. They were his real life, not some imaginary recording studio in Paris or Memphis.
The narrow road that wound through the park was lined with cars and vans and flatbed trucks, which surprised Chapin, who had not really believed the event would attract so many people. He realized Barnicle was correct when he told him this would be a good place to meet people and pass out his cards. Near the crest of the hill they parked under a big leaf maple tree and rolled off their cars, pushing them over to the pit area which was marked off with orange traffic cones. Beside it, the Grateful Dead blaring through a speaker on its roof, was a canary-yellow popcorn wagon that was surrounded by children. A few tangerine balloons drifted loose from the banner stretched above the finish line. Spectators were everywhere along the half mile course, seated on the grass and on stools and camp chairs and a few even on tree limbs.
“Good God, it’s like a damn circus out here,” Chapin declared as he noticed a car resembling a Roman chariot being pushed through the pit area by a driver outfitted in a plastic breastplate.
Barnicle smiled, noticing the centurion. “Circus Maximus, you mean.”
“I can’t believe the work put into the construction of some of these cars.”
“A lot of amateur engineers like to test their imaginations.”
Chapin gazed intently around the area, amazed at the elaborate designs of some of the vehicles. He saw three crafted from beds, a couple of coffins, a giant goldfish bowl, and a half-dozen enormous beer cans. And the drivers and crews appeared just as outrageous, decked out in clown suits, goggles and dusters, iridescent jumpsuits, tiger-striped fatigues, top hats and tails. He seemed almost conservative wearing the Captain America motorcycle helmet that Barnicle had loaned him.
“Your car might not look as colorful as some of these contraptions,” Barnicle conceded, “but I guarantee you it’ll go as fast as any of them. Don’t forget, they’re all powered by gravity so no one really has an advantage over anyone else.”
He did not reply, his attention still fixed on the strange cars and crews in the pit area.
Moments later, as Barnicle tightened the rear wheels of the car, a water balloon sailed through the air and splashed beside him, soaking his trousers and shoes. He shook his head, laughing. “Now that’s something a driver can’t have any control over.”
“What do you mean?”
“Some crews spend half their time lobbing water balloons at one another. It’s just something you have to be aware of and then just as quickly put out of your mind. All you should be thinking about is crossing the finish line as fast as you can.”
“That’s easier said than done.”
“Not if you really put your mind to it,” he said sharply.
Chapin nodded, dodging the path of another balloon.
“You should be called to the starting line any minute now.”
He glanced at his watch. “I know.”
“You feeling all right?”
He smiled tentatively. “The butterflies in my stomach feel like their wings are made out of razor blades, but otherwise I feel fine.”
“Good, because I know you’re going to do well out there.”
Less than four minutes later, he was finally on the starting line, wedged between a swollen hot dog and a car built from an aluminum fishing boat. The driver of the boat wore a crumpled skipper’s cap, the other driver had on a straw pith helmet. The flag girl stood a few feet in front of them on the track, waiting for the countdown from the derby director. She didn’t appear much older than the students at Hamilton and like many of them found it difficult to stand still and pranced around as if on a dance floor. Appropriately, she had on the knee-high white leather boots of a go-go dancer, a black tank top, and a fringed miniskirt.
He watched her for a moment, the fringe of her skirt shaking frantically above her knees, then peered down the track. It was much steeper than the slope he had practiced on behind Barnicle’s garage, and nearly twice as long. For a split instant, he wondered if he would be able to stop after he crossed the finish line, if he might continue on and race through the park until he crashed into one of the huge maple trees. The thought made him cringe but quickly he dismissed it, aware that every other driver he had watched had come to a complete stop.
The cars could be pushed for the first ten yards. Then the drivers were strictly on their own. Barnicle had agreed to be his pusher and now slowly, anxiously he pressed his bony fingers into Chapin’s shoulders.
“You all set?” he asked after a moment.
“As much as I’ll ever be, I guess.”
He then bent down and whispered into his left ear. “You’re going to do just fine. I am sure of it.”
“On your mark,” the director bellowed through his bullhorn.
Barnicle, inhaling slowly, stepped back and braced his shoulder against the rear of the fuselage.
“Get set … go!”
The flag girl, her hair tumbling over her shoulders, jumped up and down, furiously waving a checkered flag the size of a car blanket.
The car bolted ahead, with Barnicle groaning loudly as he pushed it into the lead. Then he peeled away and Chapin was on his own and leaned forward, straining to make the car go faster as the grade rapidly grew steeper. A bulging water balloon splashed beside his left rear wheel then one struck in front of him, soaking the sleeves of his windbreaker. He ignored them, concentrating on staying in his lane.
Gradually the runabout began to pick up speed and close on his left shoulder, and he leaned forward even more, and urgently began to scream. Soon the boat disappeared, and all he could see out of the corner of his eyes were scads of spectators lined along the course. He smiled uncontrollably, amazed that the trick worked, and raced across the finish line before the other cars.
Moments later, Barnicle joined him at the finish line, his toothy grin as bright as the wire wheels of the car, and offered his congratulations. “You could not have driven a better race!” he said, effusively pounding him on the shoulders.
“You were outstanding.”
“I did everything you told me to do.”
“You certainly did.”
He then urged him to pass out his business cards and play some tunes on his fiddle. Immediately his heart dropped a notch, and a vein in his forehead began to pound. The suggestion stung him back to reality, reminding Chapin that he was not really here to enjoy himself and accept compliments for his performance on the hill but to continue to pretend he was someone he wasn’t. Despite what he did moments earlier, he knew he was a fraud and that made him cringe in revulsion. The last thing he wanted to do now was play his fiddle, but he obliged Barnicle and said he would get it out of the truck.
A few people offered their congratulations as he passed by, some even shook his hand. And he was surprised how grateful he was for their support, gradually realizing that he had accomplished something genuine for a change. Shortly after he started back to the truck, he paused and glanced around at the road that wound through the park, and then, before he quite realized what he was doing, he shoved the car onto the road, hopped it, and began to roll through the first turn. A curious, almost infantile squeal rose from deep inside of him as he raced ahead, reminding him of the satisfaction he had felt hurtling down the course just moments ago.
Photo of violin courtesy Pixabay.