Because even his mid-life crisis takes only frugal turns and it would never occur to him to pay extra for shipping, the violin arrives just when he forgets about it. The mailman doesn’t even bother to bring it to the door but leaves it instead with a perfunctory wave just inside the periphery of his front yard.
He has to dig it out from among the ferns and brings it inside while his children and a boy from next door are playing under the canopy of a giant pine tree, which some of his neighbors have been passive-aggressively nudging him to do something about lest it keel over and cause god-knows-what damage. But such are concerns of grown-ups with too much time on their hands. The children are engrossed in their game and don’t even ask him about his strange-shaped parcel.
The last time he touched a violin was when TVs still came with adjustable antennas and telephones had rotary dials. He doesn’t remember what that violin, with which he took lessons with a self-proclaimed maestro named Mr. Kreutzer for five years, cost, but his eBay violin cost just 38 dollars, including shipping. It’s a frightening sum considering that it traveled to his home all the way from the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen.
Ensconced in his living room, he tears open the package. It’s the first time he’s felt this much anticipation about opening a package since he was a boy. What he finds turns out not to be a scam. It’s a real violin with a cloth case, a bow, and even a small square of rosin. And there’s no secret note hidden inside written from a prisoner clamoring for outside intervention to stop unspeakable abuses.
It takes him twenty minutes to set up the bridge and tune the strings with the aid of a battery-powered guitar tuner. Mr. Kreutzer would have frowned upon his turning to such gadgets instead of relying on the human ear, but the march of progress…. blah, blah, blah.
He scores the rosin with his keys, then rubs bits of the rich amber on his bow before tucking the violin under his chin, wondering whether the riding-a-bicycle metaphor only applies to things with wheels or if it even really holds true for bicycles. Can one really not forget how to ride a bicycle? He files the question away. A project for another day.
For now, he takes a deep breath and pulls the bow across the strings, hoping that his fingers will remember what to do next. And just like that, the violin transports him back thirty-plus years to Mr. Kreutzer’s living room, the site of his weekly interrogation.
“What will you play for me this week?” asks Mr. Kreutzer, who still looks the same. His brows, furrowed. His prominent nose, still the centerpiece of his long Lincolnesque face.
“The only thing I remember how to play is O Come All Ye Faithful.”
The teacher nods, and the pupil plays. His fingers struggle to find their place on the fingerboard, but there are moments when the notes he plays sound like they’re part of the song.
“Your poor mother had such big hopes for you,” says Mr. Kreutzer, when he’s done playing.
“You were the worst student I ever had.”
“Why didn’t you ever practice?”
“I didn’t want to play then.”
“Then why do you want to play now?”
“I’m old now, not as old as you, but…. I just wish I was good at something.”
“Will you practice this time?”
He says nothing. He doesn’t want to lie to a ghost.
The teacher shakes his head and disappears, leaving the man alone again. His violin suddenly looks shabby as if he paid too much for it. Why had he bothered to order it?
The door opens and his son rushes in from the yard.
“What’s that?” the boy asks, pointing.
“A violin. I used to play it when I was your age.”
“Yes, but I didn’t practice, so I wasn’t very good.”
The boy takes it from his father and pushes it under his chin. It’s much too big for him. But the boy doesn’t look so bad. And the father notices that he instinctively grabbed the bow the correct way. It dawns on the man that his son might be a prodigy whose potential may have gone unrecognized and untapped.
“Are you going to have me take lessons?” the boy asks.
“No. Not if you don’t want to.”
The boy hands the violin back and runs back outside. The man watches him rejoin his sister and the neighbor boy. He wonders for a moment if he’s been wrong to let his children enjoy their childhoods rather than steering them to become uber-humans of the future. Maybe his son is his chance at redemption. Maybe that’s what Mr. Kreutzer was trying to tell him minutes earlier.
He tucks the violin under his chin and gives O Come All Ye Faithful another go. He asks himself again, how could they possibly sell this thing for just 38 bucks?
Yongsoo Park is the author of the novels BOY GENIUS and LAS CUCARACHAS, the memoir RATED R BOY, and the essay collection THE ART OF EATING BITTER about his failing quest to give his children an analog childhood. He lives in Harlem and gets around on an old bicycle.