I. Poco sostenuto - Vivace
Morris crept through the front entrance of the school to find the lobby stuffed with people. There were classmates—some of Morris's fellow freshmen—along with some upperclassmen and a ton of adults—parents, teachers, and a few alumni. Most of them were in semi-formal wear; boys and men in at least a button-down, girls and women in evening gowns. At least Morris wasn't the only one wearing a tie. Granny had insisted he wear one. This was a symphony, she'd said, not a rave.
He and Granny went to the cashier table, where Arnold Holbert from Biology was in charge of selling tickets. Morris mostly ignored Granny's attempts to chat with Arnold, and searched through the crowd. He touched the pocket on his chest, feeling for the gift he needed to give tonight, or he'd never give it at all. Mae was here somewhere. The show started soon. She'd never be late.
And she wasn't—Morris spotted her as soon as he and Granny made it to the auditorium. Mae was chatting with her friends in front of the stage, wearing a red dress, holding her oboe. There she was, a radiant musician, and here he was, a nobody from her English class. What business did he have interrupting her and her friends, right in front of the auditorium, in front of everyone?
"Aren't you going to sit down?" Granny said. "You're the one who insisted we come."
She was right, he did. He filed into the row of seats behind her and sat down, his eyes still on Mae. Morris had thought that showing up to her concert might get her attention, show her that he was interested in what she did. Sure, he didn't play any instruments, and sure, Granny's interests were more in 70's stadium rock than Beethoven. But Morris read up on Beethoven and the Seventh Symphony and even looked up a performance on YouTube, all to prepare for Mae's performance. Now he and Granny sat close to the back, buried in the crowd. Even if Mae looked in his direction, she'd never notice him.
Morris never told Granny about the gift he'd bought for Mae. Morris had never spoken a word about her. He knew Granny would make some remark that meant well but wouldn't be as funny as she thought. Or worse, she'd try to help play matchmaker. Morris would never survive the embarrassment.
Mae left her friends and took her place on stage and began warming up on her oboe.
Mae was going to be so happy when this was done. Beethoven's Seventh had consumed every waking hour of her life for the last month. If it wasn't the new orchestra leader pushing everyone harder than Mr. Onder ever did, it was her parents demanding she practice the moment she finished her homework every single night. She'd hardly had time for friends. She hardly even had time for homework. She barely had time to compare notes with Stanley, the other oboist. The entire symphony begins with an oboe melody. It would live or die based on her and Stanley's performance.
Her oboe was practically a part of her now—where her fingers ended, the oboe began.
All she had to do was get through this performance. Her friends had come to show their support, and were all going out for pizza afterwards. Mae could almost taste the cheese and olives already. If anything went wrong with the performance, she just had to hope it wasn't her fault.
The lights still showed the audience building up in front of the stage. Mae had learned to ignore them, to pretend the audience wasn't even there. This performance was for her, her conductor, and her fellow orchestra members.
The lights dimmed. The auditorium went quiet.
The conductor, Mr. King, took the stage, and began his introductory speech. Mae didn't hear a word he said. She was playing the entire symphony in her mind, running through the most difficult parts, and the parts where she might draw the most attention. It hadn't been like this under Mr. Onder. Back then, just the previous semester, the school orchestra tended to focus on shorter, lighter music. If they performed anything from a symphony, it would be a selection, not the whole thing. Then when Mr. King came along, he blindsided everybody by assigning Beethoven's Seventh, and expecting perfection right out of the gate. Maybe that was Mr. Onder's fault for not preparing them for a full performance. Either way, it would have been nice to have more buildup. Not that it mattered. Mae was going to nail this.
The last thing Mae thought about before Mr. King finished speaking was the test she'd taken a few weeks ago on Of Mice and Men. It was the shortest book she could find on the list for English class, and she still couldn't find time to do more than skim it because of this symphony. If it hadn't been for one classmate, Morris, telling her the bigger details and what Lennie and George's travels and struggles meant, she wouldn't have stood a chance on that test.
Quiet filled the auditorium again. Mr. King tapped his baton.
The symphony began. Mae began.
She began to relax once the clarinets joined in.
Then when the strings began to play, it was all just momentum carrying her forward.
III. Presto – Assai meno presto
Shelley thought the orchestra sounded fine, for a bunch of high schoolers, not that she could necessarily tell good classical from bad. They could be fouling up every other note for all she knew. Poor little Morris was sitting next to her, even more rigid than that conductor's baton. She'd wondered what could have inspired her grandson's sudden interest in classical music. Now that the show had started, it didn't take a rocket scientist to see it. His eyes hadn't left that girl in the red dress since they arrived. He was as transfixed with her as he was with the music.
Now she understood what the tiny oboe keychain on his dresser was for. She'd been this close to actually buying him an oboe and getting him lessons.
She'd first met his grandfather at a concert, though it was nothing like this. She and Paul had wound up at the same Alice Cooper show, and they crashed into each other while he was coming out of the bathroom and she was carrying her snacks back to her seat. As they argued, and then talked, they forgot all about Alice's music and theatrics.
But Morris couldn't have a run-in like that while the girl was still playing. At least he hadn't set his sights on someone a little less accessible, like Beyoncé.
As the second movement started, Shelley wondered if there was anything she could do to help. He'd probably be too embarrassed. Teenage boys always are—his father was the same way. If only she knew more of Morris's friends. She'd only been taking care of him a few months, ever since Martin lost his job and Belinda broke her leg. They were running on unemployment insurance, disability claims, and fumes, and had no time, money, or energy to take care of a teenager. Shelley was only too happy to help. It had been lonely since Paul died, and it was nice to have someone young in the house again.
Except he spent so much time inside, either reading or playing or one of his online games. He still went out to see his friends, but for the most part, Morris tended to be rather solitary. Shelley could tell his parents' situation was getting to him, not to mention their prospects for the future. This performance—and that girl in the red dress—was the first thing in a long while that really energized him. She wanted him to be happy. But how to do that without destroying him?
IV. Allegro con brio
The orchestra got to the fourth movement, which made Morris picture a wild dance party. When exploring the symphony on YouTube before, he'd even found a Japanese song from an old anime that set the movement to nonsense lyrics about eggs. It was as much the opposite of the second movement as Beethoven could have come up with.
And the whole time, Mae remained poised, and her playing remained smooth. Morris was impressed with everybody, for that matter. He'd always known the Hayashi twins as major goofballs, yet now they both sawed on their violins like maniacs. Rita from History looked like she was going to pop playing her trombone. And he was pretty sure that was one of the Juniors on the wrestling team on the cello. Mr. King had shaped them into a force to be reckoned with.
It made Morris start to seriously wonder, why the hell wasn't he playing an instrument?
The movement ended. The eggs were finished. The auditorium roared in a standing ovation. Morris stood on his seat to join in. She nailed it.
As they headed out through the lobby, Morris tugged on Granny's wrist. "Can we stay a little longer? I know a few people in the orchestra, and I wanna congratulate them."
Granny raised her eyebrows. "That's fine with me. So you had a good time?"
"Yeah, I'm glad I came. How about you?"
"Not bad. Not quite on the level of the Alice Cooper concert where I met your grandfather, but it was nice."
"You seriously met him at an Alice Cooper concert?"
"Didn't I ever tell you?"
Morris spotted the Hayashi twins. "Hold that thought. Joe, Jim! You were amazing! Didn't know you had it in you!"
"Ha, thanks," Joe Hayashi said on his way to the exit.
Morris kept an eye out for any sign of red. He saw Rita pass by, and then the wrestler with his cello.
"Was there someone in particular you were waiting for?" Granny asked.
Morris groaned. He couldn't say it out loud, not in front of Granny. Not—
"Morris? From English?" A hand touched Morris's shoulder, and Mae in her red dress was standing beside him. "Wow, I wasn't expecting you to be here."
"Listen, I wanted to thank you for helping with that Of Mice and Men test a few weeks ago. I've been having such a hard time with this symphony, and flunking that test would have just wrecked me. I couldn't have done it without you."
"Oh. O…Okay. You already thanked me though."
"I did? Well, that's when I took it. Now I'm thanking you again. Every little bit helps. See ya."
And she began to head off, as Morris meekly drew the oboe keychain out of his pocket. "Uh…"
He suddenly felt his grandmother's hand thrust into his back and shove him forward. He tumbled into Mae. In the brief moment of confusion, he helped keep her oboe case from falling to the floor.
"Uh, thanks?" Mae said, then looked down into his hand. "What's that?"
He held out the oboe keychain. "I got this for you. I found it at a yard sale, and I thought you might like it." As he sputtered it all out, every possibility whirled through his mind. What if she thinks it's stupid? What if she already has one? What if she has an even better oboe trinket from someone else?
"Oh," Mae said. "For me?" She plucked it up. "It's so cute. Thank you."
"Y-you're welcome," Morris said as she began to turn away.
He felt another shove from behind. "Wait!" He checked behind her to find his grandmother's wicked smile. He knew she was going to embarrass him tonight, and she'd finally done it. But now Mae was looking at him again, and he had to say something. "Um, I don't suppose you're doing anything tomorrow?"
"Well…" Mae thought about it. "Tonight's Sunday, so tomorrow's just gonna be school, homework, and oboe practice."
"Right. Right. Dang it." Morris thumped his forehead with the ball of his hand.
"But I might be free this weekend," Mae said with a grin. "And until then, we've still got class." She grabbed his hand and gave it a soft squeeze. "I love the keychain. See you tomorrow!"
"S-see ya." Morris watched her carry the oboe case outside, with her father holding the door open.
He turned back to Granny. "I'll get you for this."
"Eh, it's not quite meeting at an Alice Cooper show, but every little bit helps, right?" She chuckled. "I'm definitely glad I came."
"Just don't make a big deal about it," Morris said. "Especially with Mom and Dad."
Granny took her keys out of her purse as they headed for the door. "Make a big deal out of it. Got it."
But the embarrassment passed as the two of them went out into the night. All that mattered was that Mae had gotten her gift. For the rest of the evening, Morris's mind drifted between Mae's red dress, the grin on her face when she mentioned the weekend, and a song about eggs.