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from the November 2007 issue

A Classical Education

In this short story, Johann Sebastian Bach frames Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for theft on an airplane.

On a flight to Budapest I was sitting next to a very young girl who immediately won me over with her green eyes and blonde pigtails. Her mother was also blonde and green-eyed and sunk in Brigitte, a sort of German cross between Martha Stewart Living and Cosmopolitan. I forgave her because her daughter was such a pretty child, in a serious, obedient way, a miniature mixture of Susan Sontag, Jessica Valenti, and Paris Hilton's chihuahua, Tinkerbell.

"What's your name?" I asked her after take-off, eager to make some kiddie small talk.

"Johann Sebastian Bach," answered the munchkin and stole a pack of gum out of her mother's Gucci purse.

I burst out laughing and said, with one of my famous conspiratorial grins, "And I'm Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart!"

Johann Sebastian gave me the finger.

I was petrified with shock. Can a child do that? I asked myself and shook my head. At this the girl stuffed five sticks of gum into her mouth all at once, threw the empty pack in my lap, and let out a heartbreaking scream. The mother closed her magazine and looked at her daughter, who then pointed at me.

Mother: "What did the evil man do to you?"

Daughter (mouth full of gum): "Waaaaaah!"

M: "Jo, where did you get that gum from?"

D: "The evil man gave it to me. He told me to chew it all at once. And he said his name is Mozart, and he wants to make music with me, waaaaah!"

M: "You what!" (Her green eyes flash in my direction as the little one spits the huge wad of gum into her mother's hand.)

Now, what can you do in a situation like this? The mother is convinced her blonde angel doesn't even know what lying is, and worse, I held the empty pack of gum in my hand. Also, "make music with me" sounded damn unsettling. No one would have believed me if I said that the little girl was playing a perverse game with me, as innocent as she looked and as unshaven as I was. And when the mother identified the gum as her own—"Wait a minute! Have you been digging through my purse?"—every single person in the plane turned and stared at the pedophile pickpocket.

In tears, the girl secretly gave me the finger again.

"I say!" said I, trying to defend myself, "Johann Sebastian Bach isn't blameless here!"

"Bach?" the outraged mother cried out in unison with a flight attendant who'd come by on a diplomatic mission to settle the argument. With that I was deemed a crackpot for the rest of the flight.

"And Mister Mozart didn't fasten his seatbelt either," the little monster tattled, her face a symphony of innocence. Flying without a seatbelt—that's no minor sin, it's a capital offense as serious as armed robbery.

"Are you violating our security guidelines, Sir?" the stewardess politely screamed at me. Before I could answer, my phone rang. The mother cleared her throat as aggressively as her vocal cords would permit, and even louder the longer I looked for the damn thing, which was playing "A Little Night Music."

"Sir, turn off your cell phone this instant!" commanded the flight attendant with such urgency that some of the passengers frantically put on their life vests.

"He should have turned it off before we started," the little smartass said and then added a sentence in Hungarian, which caused her mother and the stewardess to laugh maniacally. At last the ringing stopped, and the flight attendant departed, swinging her hips with disdain (later: no beer for me, only tea).

It was time to take responsibility for the girl's education: "You don't do things this way, little girl! You don't lie, you don't steal, and you only give the finger in traffic!" I wanted to tell her, but mother and daughter had swapped seats and there was no point in trying to educate a woman who reads Brigitte. The girl sat in the window seat, her face bathed in sunlight, and whistled a Bach fugue.

Translation of "Immerhin haben wir uns gewehrt: Klassische Erziehung." Copyright Saša Stanišić. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2007 by Saša Stanišić and Janet Hendrickson. All rights reserved.

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