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The Tragedy of the 1-5-0To Michael Fowler's previous piece

The Fax Rabbit

When I heard that the great violinist Lunearc was to play a concert at symphony hall, I bought two advance tickets and called the Big Virgin. I called her the Big Virgin because she would never go to bed with me, or with anyone as far as I knew, and also because she stood a head taller than me and had a full if lumpy figure that made most other women look like anorexic dwarfs.

More importantly, the Big Virgin was the one girl I could count on to go hear classical music with me. There were one or two other girls who wouldn't put up a fight if I took them to a country bar or a rock concert, but Big was the only one who would actually smile if I mentioned pizzicato. Like me, she couldn't tell Beethoven from Dvorak, but she would willingly listen to either. So I thought of her right away.

"Is it the left hand again tonight?" she asked as we stepped sideways past already seated patrons to our seats in the middle of the fifth row from the stage, great seats. She referred to the left hand of Leon Fleisher, whose performance of Ravel's concerto for that appendage we had attended the last time we saw each other, about two months ago. We had bought seats on the violin side of the hall for that performance, so as not to miss a single movement of the left hand as it traversed the keyboard. Big had been enthralled by Fleisher's sinistral display. I too had not forgotten it.

"No, tonight it's a fiddler who thinks he's a rabbit, or at least they say he does," I said. "He's a genius named Lunearc who's gone off his rocker."

I felt flushed and spoke too loudly, and a few people sitting in front of us turned around with evident annoyance. We were both a little drunk, in fact, Big on plum wine and I on sake, since we had rushed from a Japanese steakhouse to make the eight o'clock concert. Dinner had been rushed too, owing to my lateness. We had caught each other up on a few things, and talked briefly about her job in social work and my struggle to be a writer. But a chatty couple at our table kept interrupting us, and the cook kept doing absurd things with shrimp tails and lemon rinds that seemed funny after a couple of cups of sake, and I didn't get in a word about Lunearc before we had to dash off. Anyway, I was saving him as a treat for later.

"Is this one of your jokes?" asked Big.

"No," I whispered. "It's tragic. But I really don't know what's happened to him. We'll see when he comes out. According to an article I read, he hops out on stage like a rabbit. It's due to the pressures of his career or something."

"My career hasn't turned me into a rabbit," said Big. "Just a beast of burden."

"Funny," I said.

"Why doesn't he see a doctor and take a rest?" said Big.

"He's driven to keep performing, I guess," I said. "It's all he knows. He's played concerts since childhood."

"So you brought me here to watch a poor man suffer?" said Big. "Is that what you've become, a voyeur?"

"He has an affliction, perhaps, but he still plays beautifully, they say," I said. "But you may be right about the cure; this is rumored to be one of his last appearances. It may be the very last. And I'm hoping I can interview him for the paper I was telling you about. See that guy in the violas with the curly hair and toothy grin, nodding at us and winking? That's Rojek. He loves me, I think, ever since I did an article on him for the Inner City Press. He doesn't know it, but we're going to see him after the concert about an interview with Lunearc."

"Excuse me?" said Big, gazing at Rojek with interest. "You keep jabbering about this paper and your writing like you're some big reporter all of a sudden. I thought you sold desk computers."

"I do," I said. "But I joined the Inner City staff a while ago as a music columnist. The paper gave me that job as payoff for selling them some computers cheap. But they used my article and pictures on Rojek, 'The Cavalier Violist,' and they'll be sure to use one on Lunearc, 'The Rabbit Violinist,' especially if I can get some inside stuff. It may be a new start for me."

"I think Mr. Rojek has other things in mind than furthering your newspaper career," said Big, watching the string player wave his fingers at me and simper.

"You must defend me," I said. "I'm counting on you."

"So I'm to be your chaperone, is that it?" said Big. "You've got it all figured out."

"I asked you here to witness a stirring musical event," I said.

"Thanks," said Big. "I'll try to be stirred."

"And to take you to bed afterward," I said.

"This isn't your lucky night," said Big. "That kettledrum player's kind of cute, though, in a little boy way. Can Rojek introduce me to him?"

I wanted to apologize for my clumsy come-on, but the conductor, maestro Lopez-Cobos, came out and we began to applaud wildly. Lunearc followed, to a deafening ovation. His entrance was riveting. Dressed in an unpretentious dark suit and a red bow tie, and dangling his famous Guarnerius fiddle in his left hand by the scroll and his bow in his right, he did not so much walk out as shuffle. Every two or three steps, he made a slight hop. He was bent over in a partial crouch, and his lips and nose kept twitching. His eyes, however, were half closed, giving him the appearance of being in a trance. So far the story about him seemed to be true; the man was acting like a rabbit. "I wish I could get pictures of this," I said to Big.

"Stop thinking of yourself," she said. "Sex and a career boost, that's all you care about."

"No, I'm concerned with the curious fate of genius," I said, but she rolled her eyes.

The audience settled down, then Lunearc briefly tuned and nodded to the maestro. The timpani and orchestra did their introduction, and then the soloist came in. The upward steps of the violin led straight to a higher realm, and the confident tone never wavered. This was all the more remarkable in that Lunearc played hunched over in his rabbit posture, and now and then executed a short hop as his body swayed to the music. His nearly closed eyes made him appear to be doing everything unconsciously, not only the playing but the hops and facial twitches too. In my column, I would say that, his rabbity mannerisms aside, everything about his performance was up to the level of the genius he had always been. I was amazed, as was Big and, I was sure, everyone. There was thunderous applause at the end, during which Rojek pointed to himself and then to the now bowing, now hopping Lunearc, who soon shuffled off stage into the wing.

"We're on," I said to Big through the continued sound. "Rojek signaled that he can introduce us to Lunearc. He thought of it himself. What that man won't do for me now."

"I'd love to meet them both," said Big. "But I have my doubts about Rojek's ability to bring it off. My guess is that Lunearc's too reclusive. Rojek's just coming on, like all men."

We had to wait until after Lunearc's encore to find out what our success would be, though that was one wait I didn't mind. The star played something short for the unaccompanied violin, by Paganini or Bach, that made the hair on my neck stand up. I, a music columnist for the Inner City Press, didn't know the difference between Niccolo and Johann Sebastian, but I knew what sounded good. At the end of this Lunearc shuffled off for good, again to tumultuous noise. Big and I headed at once for the greenroom. Rojek and I spotted each other in the crowded room, and he motioned us over. He gave the Big Virgin an unabashed up-and-down when we got over to him, and Big at once said, "What a performance! I've never seen anything like it!"

"Absolutely spectacular," said Rojek, continuing to stare at Big. He seemed almost alarmed by her, and I found it funny. This big girl was going to be fine protection.

"Listen," said Rojek, at last looking at me. "Lunearc's giving a press statement in a minute. They just announced it. You'll get a great story, even if other reporters are here too, and they are, believe me. The tormented genius thinks he's a fax rabbit. He even told the orchestra at rehearsal."

"Did you say a dust rabbit?" said Big. She didn't mean it as a joke.

"What's a fax rabbit?" I said. I wasn't sure if "facts" or "fax" was meant, but fax sprang to mind since I sold these machines too at the computer store.

Before Rojek could answer, Lunearc appeared from a dressing room to applause and camera flashes. I got my share of pictures too, most of them with extraneous people blocking the violinist, but some were clear shots. After a while I just watched.

"Thank you, thank you," the artist said. He was still hunched over, and his movements still shuffles and hops. He closed his eyes for seconds at a time now, and seemed to function in a state of will-less autopilot. Maybe he was tired. Yet his speech was clear and purposeful, as his playing had been.

"I have called a press conference in the greenroom of this symphonic hall, where I began my concert career 28 years ago, to announce that with tonight's performance my recital career is concluded," he said.

"To those of you who may be inconvenienced by this for professional or contractual reasons, I apologize. But to all, including just music lovers, I say, I can't continue, since I have become a fax rabbit.

"I know that the term fax rabbit merits explanation, but I must be brief, since I hardly comprehend it myself. In short, the crouching, hopping creature before you is not putting on an act, but is actually what it seems to be, a mechanical beast or automaton.

"Imagine, if you will, a child trained from virtual infancy to become proficient in one task, as I was in playing the violin. A typical prodigy, I was forced to study the violin even before I was old enough to attend school. At the age of seven I began public performances with a show in this very hall. Well, you know my history. But now imagine this violin-playing machine gradually realizing that it had no will of its own, but was simply following commands beamed straight into its brain. The commands told the machine to practice and perform, practice and perform, to the exclusion of all else that life offered, and I had to jump like a rabbit to obey. Only lately have I come to comprehend that the origin of these commands had to be a fax machine. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the origin of the pitiful fax rabbit that now takes its leave of the concert stage to seek medical treatment and a cure.

"Let me add that I do not hold my parents, trainers, or promoters responsible. To be sure, the great Ricci said that, if you scratch a prodigy, you will find two ambitious parents, and that the parents of the prodigy should be shot prior to shooting the prodigy himself. But that was Ricci. I say, without my family and those who trained and supported me over the years, I could never have become the artist I became. They also support me now, in my taking a medical leave from concertizing. And so I am thankful to them, and do not accuse them of sending the fax commands. In fact, the senders of those commands, rank opportunists though they must be, are still unknown to me.

"I do not know if I will ever return to the stage. But if I do, I hope to see all of you again. Goodbye, and thank you for listening over the years."

Lunearc shuffled off and did not respond to questions or requests to pose for pictures. His people fended off the more rabid fans and members of the press, and the violinist vanished behind the dressing room door he had emerged from, perhaps retired from music for good at age 35.

"Unbelievable," I said to Big and Rojek. "Whoever heard of such a malady? Truly a modern disease! And what a loss to the music world! Well, Rojek, do I get a private interview with him? He seems to have closed the door on everyone."

"It seems you don't," admitted the violist. "I was hoping, but what can I do? Still, you should be grateful for what you heard. But some of us men are getting together at my place around midnight for a little nachtmusik, and more than likely Lunearc with be there. He's invited. You're invited, too."

The invitation to "us men" obviously did not extend to Big, who was a ready-made excuse for my not showing up. Anyway, it was clear Lunearc would not appear at Rojek's den of iniquity, no matter what his sexual preference was. That he had never done so in the past I knew from Rojek, and tonight he would certainly need a rest.

"Thanks," I said, "but I'm committed tonight to my charming companion."

"You're not committed to anyone but yourself," Big said to me. "I can't decide if you should take me home or somewhere for more wine. It was nice to meet you, Mr. Rojek. I love the viola."

I'd hoped for a more graceful exit, but that was good enough, and we left Rojek with a look of disdain on his face. He still owed me, I figured, since anyone could have heard Lunearc's speech just by going to the greenroom.

In the car I started pawing Big, whom I desired in my baser moments.

"What do you think you're doing, mister?" she said, pushing me away powerfully.

"I can't help it," I said. "I'm a fax sex fiend."

"A fax moron, you mean," she said. "This is the thanks I get for saving you from that masher. You know, I would like to have talked to Mr. Rojek a little longer. I'm sorry now we came away so soon."

We stopped for a glass of wine at a place I knew called Diane's, and I told Big I wanted to follow up on the Lunearc experience. I knew I could write meaningfully about Lunearc's treatment and progress from fax rabbit to human being again. As a music lover, I felt involved in his problem, and then of course such a story about a world-famous musician would establish me as a writer. No doubt the story would be carried worldwide and turn into a book for me. But I had no idea how to contact Lunearc or his people, or how to convince them that my idea was good even if I could get hold of them.

"Let me sit in on a private interview with you and Lunearc, and you can have me in bed," Big taunted me after a glass of wine. "Even though I am a social worker with big, firm morals." "They're beauties, those morals of yours," I said. "I hear they've kept you a virgin."

"That's for me to know," she said. At the end of the night I still didn't know. What was her deal, anyway? A week later I got a call at home from Rojek.

"Look, guy," he said, "I have a tip for you in case you're still miffed about that private interview with Lunearc. Still interested in seeing him?" "Sure am," I said. "Interested in seeing me?" he said. "I'm engaged," I said.

"Not to that Valkyrie, I hope," he said. "Anyhow, word is that Lunearc joined the local musician's union and has a gig this Saturday to play a benefit for a local wildlife preserve and animal habitat. It's an outdoor affair on a huge estate. No one's supposed to know who he is, and he's even changed his name to Cranule for the job. It seems he's run away, or hopped away, from his people, and needs to pick up some quick cash." Rojek gave me the time and address, and I thanked him. "I was hoping for more than thanks," he said.

"I made you a local celebrity with my article, including color snaps of you cooking spinach in your eagles's nest of a condo on the city's highest hill, and sitting on the hood of your Mercedes in your post-Dillard's tweeds; isn't that enough for a lifetime?" In fending off his advances, I reminded myself of Big.

"I'm starting a string quartet. You should come to my place some time and hear us. Make an excellent story."

"Sounds promising," I said. "Send me some performance cassettes to help me get a feel for your group. If I like what I hear, I'll write a glowing review for the Inner City Press."

"Don't put yourself out, Mister Novice Scribbler," he said. "See you, maybe sooner than you think."

The morning of the animal benefit I called Big to see if she wanted to go with me that afternoon. She had seemed interested in Lunearc, and I owed her something for using her as a defense against Rojek and for putting up with my antics in general. "I can't," she said on the phone. "I have to work." "Is there someone else?" I asked in mock desperation. "Yes, dozens. And you're the least significant one."

"Maybe I won't go, either," I said. "It's probably a wild goose chase. I don't trust Rojek."

"Of course you'll go," said Big. "Lunearc is unclear, if you respell his name, but you're transparent. You won't let this chance slip by." "Whatever I find out, I'll tell you in bed."

"If I'm not there, leave me a message," she said. "Do let me know, though. I'm curious about Unclear."

So I went without Big to the benefit, into the kingdom of folks who were wealthier and more established than myself. I wasn't concerned about crashing the gate, since outdoor affairs tend to burst at the seams and no one knows or cares who anyone is. This part of my plan went off without a hitch. I just smiled and kept walking, and I was on the grounds. My plan would be shakier when it came to Lunearc, since I still hadn't decided how to approach him or talk him into my scheme.

I was early and nothing much was happening yet. I just wandered over the enormous grounds, looking into groups of people, under tents, and behind bushes for Lunearc. No sign of the fax rabbit. Finally I saw three men in tuxes and with fiddle cases setting up four chairs and music stands: a quartet. As I approached them, I saw, no doubt inevitably, that the violist was Rojek. He and the cellist and the second violinist seated themselves and began to warm up. He grinned broadly on seeing me, and when I pointed wordlessly to the empty chair of the first violinist, he pointed with his bow to a nearby copse of trees. I wished he'd wipe the stupid grin off his face.

I stepped into the trees and saw Lunearc, alone by a large elm. He was crouched over and holding his violin case in one hand, and what looked like a shopping bag in the other. I stopped short so he wouldn't see me and watched him. He hopped a short distance from the tree and put his case and the bag on the ground. His mannerisms seemed more rabbity now, as though he were getting closer to the animal and further from the man.

Squatting, Lunearc opened the bag and took out a pair of costume rabbit ears and put them on. Then he pulled out a hare's cottonlike tail on an elastic band and put this around his waist. In this get-up he hopped about in a short circle, as though to test the effect. By this time I had my camera out and got some pictures, evidently without drawing attention to myself. After I put the camera away I stepped toward him. "Lunearc," I said. "Lunearc."

He froze and looked at me. "I am Cranule," he said. "Cranule the fax rabbit." He picked up his violin case and hopped away quickly through the trees, leaving the bag behind. I had lost him. He would not sit still for an interview.

When I returned to the quartet, Lunearc occupied the first violinist's spot. In his rabbit disguise, he crouched in his chair with his feet on the seat, playing beautiful Mozart on his Guarnerius. The other three players wore animal costumes too. Rojek had on a raccoon mask, the second violinist a deer's antlers, and the cellist a long bird's beak. I heard Rojek's laughter over the music. I found myself a lawn chair and sat down to wait.

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