Latvian author Sven Kuzmins describes the absurd toils of a depressive wedding musician.
“Why are you tying that weird rag around your neck?” Bush asked as he spit the toothpaste into the sink, leaving numerous white flecks on the sleeve of Ziedonis’s suit jacket. Ziedonis looked into the mirror, rinsed them off with water, and, without hiding his offense, said to Bush, who was standing behind him:
“It’s not a rag, it’s a genuine nineteenth-century jabot.”
“It would’ve been better if you’d just put on a tie like a normal person.”
“Oh look, suddenly we’ve got a fashion critic here, somebody who bleaches his hair like it was still 1992,” Ziedonis replied as he watched Bush’s heavyset, half-naked figure in the mirror and thought to himself: Goddammit, what am I even doing here?
“Well, OK, don’t get offended,” Bush came closer and put a hand on Ziedonis’s shoulder. Ziedonis turned his head and carefully freed himself from Bush.
“I have to run,” he said, shoving the synthesizer under his arm as he walked out into the hallway.
“Did you take your pills?” Bush called after him, but Ziedonis was already in the stairwell.
Ziedonis arrived at work before ten. The white hall of the registry office had been cleaned, aired out, and prepared for the wedding ceremony. Sharlotte was putting on her lipstick in the side room and was reading something intently.
“Good morning. What are you doing?” Ziedonis asked.
“I’m studying my speech.”
“You’re studying your speech? I thought it hadn’t changed in twenty years.”
“Yes, that’s exactly why I decided to introduce a few small corrections. To keep with the times, so to speak.”
“That’s a good idea. The most important thing is to throw out all those ‘in accordance with the legislation of the Republic of Latvia . . .’”
“Ziedonis, sweetie, you know very well I can’t and don’t want to throw those out.”
“Why not? They sound so dry. You get the impression that marriage is nothing more than a responsibility. And anyway, if I had any say in it, I’d take the coat of arms off the wall, too. Why does a wedding hall need to look like the state revenue service or an enlistment office? Why can’t a wedding be a light and pleasant event?”
“But Ziedonis, honey, a wedding is a pleasant event. That’s why we have you,” Sharlotte said smiling as she straightened Ziedonis’s jacket, which was at least two sizes too big for his lean frame. “Just learn once and for all that the bottom button on a jacket has to stay undone! And take off that crochet work. Put on a normal tie.”
“That crochet work is a genuine nineteenth-century jabot! You said yourself that a musician has to pay attention to his appearance.”
Sharlotte opened the wardrobe and tossed Ziedonis a wide, slightly crumpled tie. He noticed that Sharlotte herself was wearing a brightly colored, unusually tight dress completely out of place in the registry office’s sterile interior. He carefully studied the director’s sturdy frame and concluded that her total body mass might be greater than Bush’s. However, while the extra pounds made Bush look flabby, Sharlotte’s Willendorfian complexion created an impression of health and strength.
She returned to the mirror and repeated her new speech:
“The union of two individuals is not just the joy they share during the most beautiful moments of their marriage and also not just the difficulties they overcome on life’s winding path. It’s also an example for friends, other people close to them in their lives, and fellow human beings. An example and a reminder that marriage stands at the foundation of every healthy society. How do you like it?” she asked.
Ziedonis felt an irresistible urge to go back home, crawl underneath his blanket with his clothes still on, and never come out again; he remembered that he hadn’t taken his Zoloft for three days in a row.
“It’s really good,” he said, lying. “Inspiring. And what are we playing?”
“What do you mean, what are we playing? Mendelssohn. What else?”
“Fine, Mendelssohn at the start. But how about something new toward the end?”
“Oh, look at that! We’ve got ourselves a visionary. No! We’re doing everything by the book.”
“Please! Something from Kalniņš at least. 'Little Blue Bird,' for example.”
“Not on my watch. Let’s go,” Sharlotte said as she gave him a hard slap on the shoulder. He studied his reflection with loathing and, using all his strength, pulled his tie into place. Sticking the synthesizer under his arm, he proceeded out to the hall.
None of the wedding guests looked especially happy and both rings ultimately turned out to be too small, though that didn’t significantly impact the pace of the ceremony. As he played the usual Mendelssohn, Ziedonis understood he needed to hurry home and take his pills, because his depression was becoming increasingly unbearable. After the ceremony he lifted the synthesizer off the stand and proceeded to the side room to say good-bye to Sharlotte, but she grabbed Ziedonis by the sleeve and said:
“Wait, wait. Where are you off to? We still have two trips today. The car is outside; go load up your piano.”
Ziedonis looked at the calendar on the wall. Two wedding trips were, in fact, scheduled, but there was a small note next to both of them: “No music.”
“But I don’t have to go. It says: ‘No music.’” he said.
Sharlotte looked at the schedule, looked into one of her folders, and said:
“Yes, but they’ve signed a standard contract, my friend. So you’re coming along.”
“Good God. Again? Why do I always have to go even when nobody ordered music?”
“Because, Ziedonis, sweetie, it says so in the contract. If it’s written on paper that there’s going to be a fully equipped pianist, then we have to bring along both the pianist and the equipment.”
“Is there no way of finally getting those standard contracts in order? Because this is totally absurd. More and more often I come along with all of you for nothing. Lately I’ve been driving around more than playing.”
“Come on, don’t exaggerate. Some people would love to have your job—a party outside of town, new people, free food, nothing to do.”
“But I don’t want to do nothing! If they’d ordered a ball, I’d happily come along to play for that ball. But they’ve clearly stated they don’t want it.”
“I’ll say it one last time, both contracts say we are providing a pianist. So we are providing a pianist.”
“Sharlotte, please understand me,” Ziedonis was grasping at his final straw, “I’m a professional composer and I want to use my time productively.”
Sharlotte twisted her face into her “boss” grimace, flipped a page in her folder, and said:
“Really? That’s funny. It says here that you’re a wedding musician. So load up your piano into the car, we’re leaving in twenty minutes.”
Ziedonis was about to answer: “Yeah, a wedding musician who goes to weddings to play no music,” but he knew it wasn’t worth arguing any further.
On the way Ziedonis pressed his head against the window and, catching sight of his reflection, shuddered at his unattractive exterior. During his student years he’d also recognized that he wasn’t especially attractive, if attractiveness is defined as the classical Greek ideal. His long nose in combination with his diminutive chin made him look like a half-melted wax doll. In his youth he could still joke about it. Now, on the verge of forty, his half-long hair had hopelessly receded from his forehead, and what are often referred to as bags under the eyes, in his case looked more like overcooked dumplings.
The wedding took place on an empty beach. The groom had long dreadlocks and an upturned mustache. The bride distinguished herself with brightly colored yet very tasteful makeup, a baroque dress, and a diadem tattooed onto her forehead. The guests also looked sufficiently colorful for Ziedonis to understand why nobody required his services here. Lately, Sharlotte had increasingly wed people like this and her attitude toward them was simple, she’d say: “It’s nice for anyone in this world to find someone like themselves.” However, during the speech she’d usually diverge from her script and go off into detailed instructions regarding the sacrament of marriage and an adult’s moral responsibilities.
Ziedonis stood off to the side hugging his synthesizer and watching the bridal party as he wondered what would end up being this event’s musical direction. Maybe it was worth it to go up to the groom’s relatives and ask? Maybe he should introduce himself and familiarize them with his high school experiments in progressive rock? However, this group looked even more advanced. People like this might even be interested in his more recent work—his jazz compositions from his time at the conservatory as well as the piano concertos he’d composed according to the modes of limited transposition, which incidentally was also his diploma piece.
After the rings were exchanged the wedding guests invited Sharlotte and the driver for a picnic in the dunes where two girls were playing an Indian tabla with remarkable dexterity, while a young guy was tapping an instrument with his fingertips that looked like a flying saucer and produced a harplike sound. Making sure his boss didn’t see him, Ziedonis exchanged his tie for the jabot and tried to stay close to the percussionists. After a while he succeeded in striking up a conversation with one of the wedding guests—not exactly one of the musicians, but without a doubt one of their friends. It was a young man named Mark Vorman. He carefully quizzed Ziedonis about the life of a wedding musician, but most of all, for some reason, he was interested not in Ziedonis’s musical experience, but instead in his mental state.
“How long have you been struggling with depression?” he asked.
“Shit. Thank God it only took me four years to get over it and without pills.”
“Lucky you,” Ziedonis said as he traced rings in the sand with his finger.
“It’s good at least that you’re able to live with it.”
“With varying results,” he sighed. “For a moment it even seemed like it was all over. But then I skipped a few days on my Zoloft like an idiot and now I feel the floor crumbling under my feet. Trust me, it’s not pleasant.”
“You bet,” Mark said as he motioned to a young man sitting nearby. “Hey, Harry, do you happen to have anything for depression?”
“I do,” the guy named Harry replied, “we were just thinking it was a good time. Let’s move to the woods, though.”
They sat down inside of an out-of-the-way ring of pines behind a dune—Vorman, Ziedonis, and a crowd of followers. Harry lit something that resembled a cigarette and passed it around.
“I don’t really smoke,” Ziedonis said when his turn in line came.
“Suit yourself, but this is a good anti-depressant. Worked wonders for me.”
Ziedonis shrugged and indifferently took a drag. At first it sent him into an unpleasant coughing fit, but soon he was overcome by a strange tranquility—similar to what he’d felt as a child, running across the meadow and on hot summer nights when he’d slept in the loft at his father’s house. A peace that he’d been seeking for so long that he couldn’t even understand at first whether he was worthy of it. He lay down on the warm seaside earth and for a long time watched tranquilly as clouds crowded together, touched, formed shapes, separated, and in all of that there was a wonderful harmony—musical as well as geometric. “If I died right now,” he thought, “at least it would be with the awareness that once in my life I’d heard the music of the spheres.” And his thoughts, too, were deeper, more expansive than usual. It was pleasant to linger in them.
“Doesn’t it seem to you like at every moment up there in the air a new, completely unique composition is being written?” he asked slowly.
“That’s a lovely idea,” Mark agreed.
“I could try to play it.”
“Go ahead and try.”
“I’ve got a combo amp in the car,” he said.
“Go get it. I’d love to hear it,” Mark said and the rest agreed.
Ziedonis was overcome by a long-forgotten feeling of happiness and motivation. This kind of effect wasn’t something that even Zoloft offered (it just made his mood somewhat bearable). He got up, laughed about the situation he’d unexpectedly found himself in, and went to the spot where the driver had left the van. Time went by slowly and Ziedonis didn’t want to rush it.
But when he reached the parking spot at the forest’s edge, the van was no longer there. The rest of the cars were all in their spots, but their gray Volkswagen was gone. Ziedonis patted down his pockets looking for his phone, but it too had gotten lost somewhere. He ran back to the beach where the wedding guests were congregating in small groups and soon found his phone half buried in the sand. Sharlotte had called him exactly eight times. Ziedonis dialed her number.
“Hello? Ziedonis? Where are you? We’re going to miss the wedding because of you,” she yelled anxiously into the phone.
“I’m sorry. I lost my phone.”
“Unbelievable! Everything always goes off the rails for you, even if you don’t have to do anything. Walk out to the highway right away, we’ll come get you. Don’t waste any time!”
It occurred to him that he could just as well hang up and stay in the dunes with his new friends, but remembered that all of his equipment was in the van. “That’s right,” he thought as he walked back toward the highway, “it was all too good to be true.”
Apparently, the van had already gotten pretty far. The empty road seemed endlessly long, the synthesizer was awkward to carry, but that wasn’t enough—clouds had gathered in front of the sun and it began to drizzle. At first the rain was very light, but soon it turned into a heavy downpour.
“No, no, no! Not the keyboard, please, not the keyboard,” he muttered as he cursed himself, Latvia’s climate, and the registry office. He took off his jacket and tried to wrap it around the synthesizer, but it didn’t help. The rain was crashing down onto the highway and roadside ditches like an avalanche. Pressing the drenched synthesizer up to his chest, Ziedonis kept moving forward. A few minutes later a car’s headlights pierced the impenetrable downpour. But as soon as Ziedonis got into the van, the rain, as if by cynical comedy script, stopped.
“You’ve put on that stupid crochet work again,” was the first thing Sharlotte said when she saw him.
The next wedding took place in a large hall; a bit further on there were not just one but two saunas heating up by the pond, and all in all everything looked very traditional. The exchange of rings was followed by the traditional crowning, during which, for some reason, a couple of burly twins carried the bride around on their shoulders. Women gossiped at the tables, men wasted no time getting drinks and every few minutes yelled at their children who were racing across the space reserved for dancing—just in case. The wedding party gave their toasts, the bride’s grandfather watched the guests with suspicion from his wheelchair, while two short-haired young guys in white shirts played exactly the same kind of repertoire on their synthesizers that Ziedonis would’ve played in their place.
But Ziedonis’s perception had changed. He almost couldn’t hear the people bellowing out their toasts. On the other hand, he could hear even the softest whispered conversation underway at the tables. When people came closer to him, he could see each clogged pore on their skin, every unshaved piece of stubble. But the most terrible thing was that Ziedonis had the power to predict their thoughts and movements.
Having discovered this kind of power, he was dumbfounded. “How strange,” he thought, “in a moment 'The Blue Carbuncle' will end, one of the musicians (the one on the left with the Yamaha) will play a bar from 'Raise Your Glasses,' the hosts will set up a game involving guessing answers to riddles so guests can get to know each other while delegating two of the groom’s relatives to protect the bride, but this guy in the pink shirt who’s sitting next to me will go for a smoke on the balcony and will think about how to strike up a conversation with the groom’s redheaded sister without alerting his wife who, incidentally, will be the next one to give a toast. They’re all programmed like electronic watches. Goddammit, what am I even doing here?”
Ziedonis understood that he needed to get out of there fast. He quietly asked Sharlotte when she was planning on going home. But it seemed that his boss was already a bit tipsy and she gestured indifferently:
“Are you in a hurry? Let’s sit for a while,” and nudged the gentleman next to her to fill up her champagne glass.
Ziedonis fell back into his chair and remembered how good he’d felt reclining by the forest under that cloudscape. It turned out that right next door there was a world in which he’d gladly live out his life, but it wasn’t meant for the likes of him.
“Not meant for the likes of me,” he repeated under his breath.
“What?” the man in the pink shirt asked.
“Nothing, nothing,” Ziedonis answered and the man got up and went for a smoke, glancing at the groom’s redheaded sister.
The entire evening Ziedonis privately predicted the wedding guests’ actions and his predictions came true without fail—even his premonition that the twins, who’d spent the entire time obsessively carrying around heavy objects, would convince him to go to the sauna. After dusk the men had grown rowdy. They packed into one of the saunas, didn’t waste time on speeches and most of the time made do with primitive sentences. Some of them were standing naked on the deck drinking vodka, trying to outgrowl each other, though most of them crowded together in the narrow rooms inside. The twins brought in a special wooden chair where the grandfather had been sitting and placed him in the center of the sauna. The group sitting on the upper bench was constantly throwing water on the hot stones, yelling, “Saunas are tops when your heart stops!” The thermometer’s indicator had climbed up to the 120-degree mark and the steam chamber resembled a shared taxi at rush hour. When it’d get too hot for the grandfather, he’d motion and the twins would carry him out on his chair. He’d sit like that in the moonlight as steam rose off his bony flesh. When the grandfather felt sufficiently cooled down, he’d motion again and the twins would carry him right back inside. One of the musicians had dozed off on the steaming bench, hit his forehead on the hot stones, and was now resting by the edge of the pond. The other one was rolling around like in a trance in the corner of the sauna and kept repeating, "Sometimes I wish I were an angel . . . " But Ziedonis, trapped between men drenched in alcohol sweat, was sitting on the lower bench and kept trying to think of clouds and the music of the spheres.
The one who’d been next to him and had spent the evening glancing at the groom’s sister sat down next to Ziedonis and introduced himself as Egon. The whites of his eyes were as red as his face.
“Hey, you some kind of a musician?” he asked.
“Hey, uh, can you play for us? The singers, uh, went off.”
“My synthesizer got soaked on the way,” Ziedonis said. “I don’t know if it’ll work.”
Egon considered what Ziedonis said as if it had been something complicated and called out:
“Hey, guys, we need to bring over the piano from the guest house!”
“It’s not necessary,” Ziedonis tried to object, but the carrier twins had tied towels around their waists, carried out the grandfather who had overheated again, and ran over to the guesthouse. Realizing that these guys were beginning to exhibit too much interest in him, Ziedonis decided to sneak out and disappear. But, while he was looking for his clothes in the overfilled front room, the twins had already taken the “Riga” brand piano and pushed it along the wooded path placing it on the deck. The women, who were using the other sauna, had gathered on the edge of the pond and were watching the chaotic scene.
“You’re crazy! Why do you have the piano?” the bride yelled.
“We’re having a concert! Come on over here,” Egon yelled back.
Ziedonis had found his socks and was hurrying to put them on, but the twins/porters had lifted the taboret on which he was sitting and carried Ziedonis over to the piano.
“Play something fun,” yelled the ladies.
“Yeah, something to dance to,” yelled the men.
There were calls coming from every side: “Yellow Leaves!” “Genovefa!” “Legionnaire songs!” But Ziedonis, who was sitting at the piano in nothing but his socks, hands shaking, quietly said:
“Piss off with your Genovefas,” and forcefully slammed out a heavy minor chord on the keys. Then another one, and another, and soon he was running up and down the octaves with so much force that for a few euphoric minutes he’d forgotten where he was, and on that dark night the comets and meteorites streaked across the sky and the trees looked alive as they shivered in the wind. His euphoria transformed into anger. At Bush, at Sharlotte, at the registry office, at the wedding guests, at the crowd of intellectuals he was destined never to join, at all the world known to him.
Then he stopped, took a break, walked into the front room of the sauna, and returned with the jabot around his neck. Making eye contact with the steaming grandfather, he continued to clatter the keys until he started getting cramps in his frozen legs.
The audience applauded. Without looking back, Ziedonis walked into the front room of the sauna. He wrapped himself in a white bathrobe, grimaced as he took a big gulp of vodka, waited until the audience started to disperse, and then went off to find Sharlotte. “That’s it,” he thought, “now I get to decide who goes where and when.”
“Hey, buddy, you’re fucking psycho,” Egon tried to pat Ziedonis’s back approvingly, but he pushed away Egon’s hand with a strong and precise motion and went off in the direction of the other sauna.
“Sharlotte,” he yelled, looking into every room. “Sharlotte, where are you?”
“Ziedonis, honey, is that you? Come up,” a voice echoed from the second floor.
Ziedonis walked up the stairs. There was a light on in one of the bedrooms. He opened the door. Sharlotte was standing in front of him with wet hair, noticeably drunk. She looked Ziedonis in the eyes, made a crooked grimace, which was surely meant to be seductive, and let the bathrobe slide off her shoulders.
“Tell the driver to start the car. We’re leaving,” Ziedonis said categorically.
“No, Ziedonis, sweetie, we’re staying for the night,” she replied and put her chubby arms around Ziedonis’s waist.
“Stop this behavior right this second! Get yourself together and go find the driver.”
“No, no, you’re not getting away from me that easily,” Sharlotte said with a smile, pulled Ziedonis by his jabot, pushed him into bed, and rolled on top of him with all her weight. Ziedonis clenched his teeth and tried to avoid Sharlotte’s kisses, he attempted to fight back with both hands.
“Pull yourself together, music man,” she ordered. “Don’t be such a wimp!”
“Yeah, pull yourself together! Be a man!” a voice echoed from the hallway. Ziedonis and Sharlotte looked up. Both musicians were standing by the door—one was supporting himself against the door frame, the other had a small trickle of blood flowing from his cracked forehead.
Shading her eyes with her palm, Sharlotte looked out at the chill autumn sunset, while Igor, the pianist who was now working at the registry office in Ziedonis’s place, played the most popular melodies of the composer Raimonds Pauls. Eight people out of the ten invited had come to Ziedonis’s funeral—Bush, who’d found Ziedonis hanging from his bathroom ceiling, still couldn’t pull himself together and was drinking for the third week straight, whereas Ziedonis’s father upon receiving the invitation had replied: “He had it coming, almost drove me there himself.” On the other hand, Mark Vorman had somehow found out about the funeral. He arrived late and stood off to the side the entire time, but when the proceedings were over and the gravediggers pushed the cross into the sand with the handles of their shovels, he walked up to Sharlotte.
“So strange to get to know a person in their final months,” he said.
“I feel like we never got to know each other at all,” Sharlotte sighed and blew her nose into a napkin.
“Seemed like everything was going to be fine, right? He said he had finally recovered and felt relieved.”
“Yes, that’s what he said, but I suspected that it wasn’t entirely true.”
“Apparently,” said Mark. He shoved his hands into his coat pockets and looked at the piano player, Igor. “Who the hell is that?” he asked.
“That’s our Igor.”
“Igor the pianist. He’s taken Ziedonis’s place.”
“I see,” Mark nodded expressively, bit his lip, and hung his head.
“What? Something wrong?”
“No, no. Everything’s OK,” Mark said as he rustled the leaves with the tip of his shoe.
Coolness arrived with twilight. Igor finished the melody and shot Sharlotte an inquisitive glance. She dragged her index finger across her throat indicating that it was time to go. Igor turned off the synthesizer and began unplugging the cords while Sharlotte produced a tiny bottle of Condy’s Crystals from her pocket and went to spray the flower bouquets and wreaths. So they wouldn’t get stolen.
© Sven Kuzmins. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Uldis Balodis. All rights reserved.