By Martin Zeigler

The final chord is barely over with, and already they are on their feet, slapping their hands and barking like seals. Here on the podium, still facing my orchestra, I barely detect the audience out the corner of my eye, but I would sense them even if I were deaf and blind. There's a certain offensive smell to their rising. And from all behind me I hear their incessant yelping of, "Encore, encore," to the point where I almost feel compelled to swing around and toss out fish.

For now, though, I luxuriate in this available moment and bid the orchestra to stand. Troopers, each and every one of them. I acknowledge them with a smile, but it means nothing. By all rights, I should not be expressing my appreciation at all but rather begging for forgiveness. How many times must I put you through this? I want to ask.

But now comes the time to face the music.

Baton in hand, I turn toward the concert hall, this chandeliered ark of bejeweled vermin, and take it all in at once, the fawning fauna all on their hind legs and furiously thwacking their forepaws. And when I step off the podium to take a bow, I work them into an even more frenzied pitch. Their mating cries of "Encore! Encore!" reach an ear-wrenching fortissimo, echoing from hidden corners of the concert hall I never knew existed. And just beneath me, in the second row, basking in the glow of the stage, a pink, pudgy-faced turtleneckedus vulgaris is standing with his megaphonic mitts to his mouth, bellowing up at me, "Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!"

My God, I wish he would stop. That they would all just shut their mouths and keep their oily hands by their side. Or better yet, now that they are standing, quietly slip into their coats and leave. Vanish. Shoo, go away.

Because it's not just the encores that gall me, although those are irritating enough. It's not just the endless bravos from this spittle-spouting baboon in the second row – what is it, seventh seat from the left? with his bulbous face now blood-pressure red from enthusiasm.

No, it's the standing I loathe most of all, the bloody rising to the feet as if they have all just sat on tacks. Must every audience I get respond to every single piece I conduct with a goddamn standing ovation, even when they have all heard the piece a thousand times before?

Why, of course they must, for the simple reason that they have all heard the piece a thousand times before.

Familiarity breeds contempt – in everyone, apparently, except the average concertgoer.

Why, I bet I could turn my back to them, lift my leg, and fart the Spring Concerto from Vivaldi's Four Seasons, selected this year, last year, the year before, and every year prior by Classic KWHATEVER listeners as the single best thing ever written in the history of music, and they would be on their feet and belching hosannas before I finish blasting the first measure.

"Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!"

My attention turns once again to the mouth in the second row, and I immediately want to make strategic use of the trombonist's mute.

Tonight, though, it's not spring, summer, fall, or winter that concludes the program and has everyone in the throes of overwrought adulation, but rather the equally predictable Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Pardon me, Beethoven's Immortal Fifth Symphony, which, in KWHATEVER's annual listener poll, has come in at a close second every single year since radio was invented.


That's right. That's right. The pink, pudgy one knows what he likes.

There was a brief time, at the start of my career, when I seriously believed that I had a say in the kinds of music this orchestra would perform. But I quickly learned that, as symphony conductor, I am little more than a monkey-suited marionette, tugged at by patrons, sponsors, endless foundations, commissions, councils for this and that, and endowments. For instance, an early letter from a deep-pocketed contributor praised me at first for "giving the vital, contemporary stuff a shot" but then went on to suggest that I balance things out by ditching the vital, contemporary stuff altogether.

"Stick to the classics," he wrote. "That's what draws the crowds. Haydn, Mozart, maybe a little Beethoven's Fifth to round out a concert or two."

What could I say in response?

Plenty, as it turned out, and I said it loud and clear, in lengthy strings of as few syllables as possible. But what I wrote was a bit more circumspect. "Thanks for setting me straight," was the gist of it. "I have learned my lesson. I shall never err again."

So now, as I look out on this drawn-in crowd, I know what they are expecting of me at this very moment. That I exit the stage and return, exit the stage and return, exit the stage and return to their ever-rising crescendo of encores and bravos and plaudits, and that I step up to the podium one more time. Or two. Or three. For that, in the end, is what they are really after – extra music for nothing.

I am tempted to point out that if it's more music they want, CD's are available in the lobby, for a price.

Instead, I exit the stage and return, exit the stage and return, exit the stage and return. And when I mount the podium and face the orchestra, the mollified multitude instantly turns quiet, save for the rustling of britches and bloomers as so many sweaty bottoms work themselves back into the seats. And save for one last abbreviated bravo from behind me in the second row.

And as I raise my baton, I can almost hear the hushed expectancy from every quarter. What will he play? What will he play?

What else is there, of course, but...Spring, from the Four Seasons? Any form will do, I'm sure, but I resist temptation and decide to stick with instruments.


* * *


By some recurring miracle which never ceases to amaze me, the concert comes to a close and I find myself once again ensconced in the blessedly silent dungeon of my dressing room.

As usual, I plummet into the couch, weary to the bone, head throbbing to beat the band, and yet afraid to shut my eyes for fear of seeing what I always see at the end of these never-ending nights – the dress circle, mezzanine, lower balcony, upper balcony, all crammed with row upon row of life-sized cutouts, their hands frozen in mid-clap, their faces in mid-encore.

It is an image that sounds ludicrous in the telling but one I fiercely try to avoid.

I have no say in the matter, though. It's as if my eyelids, too, are controlled by all those sponsors listed at the back of the concert programs.

And yet this time when my eyes fall shut, it's not a thousand rapturous faces I see, but only one.

A pink, pudgy one.

But a pink, pudgy one that's a thousand times its original size, with a wide-open mouth so cavernous it obscures the entire concert hall and threatens to consume me in one astronomical bravo.

Thankfully, just as I am about to scream, "I want my old nightmare back!" a loud rap on the door comes to my rescue. I immediately open my eyes to a heaven on earth – a too-tiny, too-dark, too-cramped dressing room without a second row in sight.

I hear another knock. This time the door swings open, and in swoops the manager of all things customer-related.

"Maestro, you did wonderfully!" she gushes.

She slaps her hands together – only once but quite loudly – and belts out her own rendition of, "Bravo!"

I level my eyes at her, silently daring her to say it again.

"Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!" she shouts.

Which I gladly accept, considering that she closes the door, locks it, and proceeds to remove her jacket and unbutton her shirt. And as I do likewise with my tux, I say to her, "I need to ask a really, really big favor."

The wary tilt of her head and the skeptical arch to her brow lead me to assure her, "No, no, something else."


* * *


I allow her a minute or two to button up before showing her the door, with a peck on her cheek for her troubles. After a few preparations, including switching to jeans and a jacket, I step outside into the nighttime air and make my way toward a set of apartments which are not all that far from the concert hall.

Along the way, I spot my first chair, of all people, coming down the street. I figure he's out and about, celebrating the end of another concert by taking in the refreshing racket of the city. In any event, he's the last person I want to see.

But much to my relief – and encouragement, I might add – he passes me by without so much as a glance in my direction, indicating to me that my disguise is perfect.

At the apartments, I wait in the shadows. And when someone emerges from the secure building, I slip inside before the door swings shut. I head to the elevator, aware of the overhead cameras but not fearing recognition in the least, thanks to that chance encounter with my ever reliable first chair.

Upstairs, I knock on the door to the right apartment, and when the door guardedly inches open, I push my way past the tenant before he realizes what is happening.

Fortunately, when he does react – with words like, "What? Who? Who are you? What do you want?" – his delayed outrage is so anemic that the sound barely carries into the hallway.

Before he can give it another try, I rip off my fake mustache and pocket my thick glasses, revealing myself as a symphony conductor once again. And immediately the tenant's pink, pudgy face turns even pinker with delight.

"Why, Maestro...why Mister...why..." he begins.

"Maestro is fine."

It's late and he's still wearing the same turtleneck from the concert. Probably the same wrinkled trousers, too, although he just as likely could have culled them from his dirty laundry when he got home. And for all I know, maybe he went to the concert in those slippers that are coming apart at the heels.

 "Oh my goodness!" he says. "I can't believe this. What a...what a sur...what a surp...what a surpri..."

Listening to him, I get the impression that all his words want to escape his mouth at once, like a panicked throng through a single exit.

"Surprise is the word you're aiming for," I offer helpfully. "But don't worry. You would have got there eventually."

"Yes, yes, yes, a surprise, this is indeed, indeed a surprise. But why the mustache? The glasses?"

I shrug modestly. "Autograph hunters. They're everywhere."

He quickly nods his understanding and adds, "But, Maestro, what places you bring – I mean, what brings you here of all places? And at this late hour?"

"Don't you know? You won the drawing."


"Your concert ticket stub was selected at random and you won first prize – a late night visit from me."

"I don't recall drawing a – I mean, entering a drawing."

"It was all explained on the back of the ticket. Don't you look at the back of your tickets?"

"Well, no."

"And why should you? As a devoted concertgoer, you probably read the program notes instead. Now how about giving that door of yours a little push?"

"By all means! I mean, by all means!" He is absolutely beside himself. And while both of him step forward to close the door to his apartment, I stand back by the window and take in the rest of the place at a glance.

I should be astonished at what I see, bowled over, knocked to the carpet from utter amazement. But for some reason the sight before me is more or less what I've been expecting and comes as no sur...surp...surpri whatsoever.

Every inch of wall space, it seems – from the floor to the ceiling, from the living room to the dining room, and even along the hallway to the other rooms – has been usurped by shelves upon shelves upon shelves of compact disks. Not one wall molecule has been spared the cheap particleboard, and not a single iota of shelving has escaped the vertical plastic jewel case. Everywhere I turn, I see a veritable infinity of CD's, all of them cramped together like the thin, emaciated masses of humanity one encounters in those hysterical visions of overpopulation.

From where I'm standing, I can only guess at the contents. Endless music for nineteenth-century elevators, perhaps. Or maybe a million and one Beloved Masterpieces that arrived in the mail as a boxed set years ago, along with a thousand and one other forgettable trifles for "ordering now."

The pudgy prize-winner brushes up alongside me. He's closed the door and is back to himself again. "I bet you're wondering why there's no music playing," he says.

Well, no. What I'm really wondering, as I look around at all this deranged wallpapering, is when, exactly, did my fuchsia-colored host finally come to terms with being an irremediable dullard.

But in the interest of civility, I merely suggest, "Could it be because it's getting really, really late at night?"

He shakes his head vigorously. "No, no, no, Maestro, that's not it, no, not at all, and in fact I just finished listening to something before you knocked, but here’s the thing: now that it's ended, I have to pick something else to listen to, and that's not as easy as you might think, as you probably know, being a music lover yourself, and so that's why it's so quiet, because I'm between choices right now, trying to decide what next, what next, what do I play next?"

"Well, then," I say, seizing the opportunity, "as long as you're in a deciding mood, maybe you can help me decide where to put this."

He eyes the small instrument case I pull out from under my jacket. "Oh, my! Please – right here, right here."

He sweeps an area clear on his dining room table, and I set down the case, snapping open its latches but keeping the top closed.

"I didn't know you were an instrument – I mean, played an instrument," he says.

"I don't. But one is never too old to learn something new."

"How true, how true," he says, wringing his hands, no doubt at the possibility of listening to a symphony conductor play something other than a baton.

He begins staring at me as if a deity had floated into his apartment and he is just now realizing it. He seems at a complete loss for words, a rather pleasant experience from my perspective until it occurs to me that I better get cracking.

I nod my head a few times, as if recollecting something, and then wag a meaningful finger at him. "I remember you from tonight's concert," I say at last. "You shouted bravo."

"Oh, yes, yes, that was me, bravo, bravo! How could I help but shout it, shout it up to the rafters? That was a masterful performance, simply masterful, masterful."

"That's probably why you stood."

"Oh, definitely, I did stand up. Your performance of the Fifth Symphony was worth an ovation, a standing, a standing ovation and nothing less."

"It's a wonder you didn't shout encore."

"I was tempted, but to me it was a bravo performance all the way."

"Don't you mean bravura?"

"Yes, bravura. Does one shout bravura? Maybe in the future I should shout bravura. What do you think? Would that be better? Which do you prefer?"

I shrug. "Bravura, bravo, encore. Clapping. Moving to the left, moving to the right. Standing up, sitting down. Fighting, fighting, fighting. It's all of a piece when it comes to Beethoven's Immortal Fifth."

"Oh, Maestro, isn't that the truth?"

"Speaking of which, you wouldn't happen to have a recording of it lying around by any chance, would you?"

"You mean...Beethoven's Fifth, Fifth Symphony?"

"Yes, yes," I say, as I eagerly interlock my fingers in prayer. "You do have it, don't you?"

He begins to perspire, his face now taking on more of a crimson hue. "Oh, boy, this is going to be a challenge, a real challenge," he says.

"Why is that?"

He smiles a broad smile and extends his arms, turning his head to indicate the entirety of his domicile with its wall-to-wall shelves. "Take a look, Maestro," he says.

Deciding that a pilgrimage to the far end of the living room would not be worth my while, I step in closer to the nearest set of shelves and let my eyes scan the contents. By the third row I get the point and drop back in a curious state of revulsion and vindication.

"Do you see now what I mean, Maestro, when I say it's a challenge, a challenge, a real challenge?" he says. "When one Fifth Symphony ends, which one do I play after that, do you see? And now you're asking me to pick one for yourself, and this will be very, very hard, Maestro, because the Fifth, I mean Beethoven's Fifth, is all I have and they're everywhere and in no particular order, and so the one I pick for you to listen to could be out here in the dining room or in my bedroom or in one of the closets or in the cupboard in the bathroom next to the toilet paper, do you see? I have everything, every recording ever made. Name a conductor, any conductor, past or present, and if they recorded the Fifth, you can bet I have it, and if they recorded the Fifth a hundred times, you can bet I have it a hundred times. I have amateur recordings, professional recordings, student recordings, recordings made from every single globe of the corner. And let's not forget transcriptions, I've got piano transcriptions, guitar transcriptions, organ transcriptions, brass, wind, vocal, and get this, Maestro, I even have an arrangement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony for tugboat whistles."

"Imagine that!" I intone as I picture a fleet of torpedoed tugboats at the bottom of the harbor.

"And it goes without saying, Maestro, that I have your CD, as well, or, rather, that of your orchestra with you conducting, and in all honesty I have to say it's probably the single best rendition I own, but I'm guessing you're up for something different tonight, am I right?"

"Oh, you're absolutely right," I hasten to inform him. "So I say grab the first CD that isn't mine, and that's the one I want to listen to right this very minute. I can't wait."

He leans in toward a middle shelf, canting his neck at an impossible angle in order to read the labels, mumbling nonsense about acoustics and metronome markings. "Oh, you'll love this guy, he observes all the repeats."

"That's exactly what I want. Beethoven's Fifth with all the repeats."

But evidently he thinks there is something even better, and so he continues his search, methodically working his way to the right, stopping at the thirtieth CD, now at the forty-first, in his tireless progression toward the seventeen thousand four hundred and fifty-third.

"Ah, yes, this one," he rhapsodizes. "This one...this one...."

As pleasurable as this visit has been, I do not want to be here all night. Or, to put it another way, I do not want to be here a second longer. And so, with as robust a timbre as I can manage given how tired I've become just standing here, I tell him, "As long as you play it nice and loud, that's all I care about."

He turns to look at me, letting a finger reserve his spot. "You know, Maestro, that's exactly how I feel, but you can bet my neighbors won't like it, oh, no, they're always on about something. Classical music lovers, they're not, they'll be pounding on the horns – I mean, the wall – before the horns come in."

"To hell with them. Crank it up all the way."

He nods happily, realizing he is in the presence of not only a refined, cultured impresario but also an Everyman who has no qualms about saying things like, "To hell with them."

His back is to me now as he delicately plucks the disk from the jewel case and places it into the CD player's tray, all the while whistling the da-da-da-dum from the opening bars. In the meantime, I don't whistle anything as I quietly back up along the carpet toward the dining room table.

"Be sure to turn it up all the way," I remind him as I open the instrument case and first pull out the gloves.

Though I'm unable to see his face, I can almost detect a rosy glow reflecting off the volume knob as he spins it as far as it will turn. "Are you ready, Maestro, are you? This was a really, really tough choice, but I think it will have you shouting bravo."

"Yes, I think I'm pretty close to being ready."

My choices are difficult, as well, but thank goodness they boil down to only two – the claw hammer or the ball peen.


* * *


On the way home, once again adorned in bushy mustache and thick spectacles, it occurs to me that I have unfinished business.

Once my dear manager of things customer-related reads the newspaper article that is bound to appear one of these days – Pink, Pudgy-Faced Man Found With Claw Hammer Buried In Skull –she will see his address and remember the favor she did for me – locating, in her customer database, the address of the occupant in the seventh seat of the second row.

Can she be trusted to keep that secret?

The answer to that, of course, is obvious. As is the answer to the question ball peen or claw, since I now have only the one left.

No, the question I really should be asking is: which recording would make the perfect accompaniment?

On the one hand I am finally free to choose anything I wish without any pressure whatsoever. Something avant-garde, perhaps. Or something dissonant. Or maybe even something vital and contemporary.

On the other hand, as much as I hate to admit it, perhaps there truly is something eternal about the old standards, the listener favorites, and especially that one weathered opus in particular.

After all, the days are getting longer and the flowers are in bloom.

Martin Zeigler writes short fiction, primarily mystery, science fiction, and horror. A number of his stories can be found in small press anthologies and magazines, as well as in online journals. His most recent publications (both mystery stories) are featured in the anthology "Insidious Assassins" and in Issue #1 of the pulp magazine Dark Corners.

"A Functional Man And Other Stories" is the title of his recently published short story collection.

Copyright 2015 Martin Zeigler. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!

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