An Empty Chair

(opening story for The Absent Bassoonist)

by Matt Potter


My black concert blouse sticks to my armpits. And my bassoon rests across my thighs. But my mind – bouncing around the woodwinds and the brass and the kettle drums – is not resting at all.

Maestro Minghinella shakes out his grey mane, pushes out his bearded chin, and focusing his steely eyes on the musicians, raises his baton.

The house – the audience seated in the auditorium and the members of the Quonsettville Community Orchestra seated in the ‘pit’ – stop their chatting and their rustling and their shifting and their squirming.

But the stab stab stab of my racing heart won’t stop.

I glance across the sea of musicians’ heads and watch Maestro Minghinella lower his baton.

He stares at the space beside me.

Not daring to turn my head, I look from the corner of my eye.

The chair beside me still sits empty.

Maestro Minghinella raps his baton on his music stand. “Second Bassoonist,” he says, his voice carrying across the sea of turning heads.

My mouth opens and closes. I look at Maestro and … nod.

“Second Bassoonist, where is my First Bassoonist?”

My mouth squirms and my eyes fuzz. Maestro is a blur in the distance.

“Second Bassoonist … ?”

“I’m … I am … uncertain, Maestro,” I say.

“Uncertain? Whhhyyy uncertain?”

“I … I, er … I haven’t seen him.”

Gasps reverberate around the hall.

“But we are all here assembled to perform Dudley Donegal O’Day’s Triple Bassoon Concerto.” Disbelief drips from Maestro’s tongue.

“I, um … yes,” I say. And I don’t know where the words come from, as I hear them just as everyone else hears them, tremulous and pale. “I guess we have … a problem.”

“A problem?” Maestro asks. “Or a dilemma?” He waves his baton, floating through rather than stirring the air, then shakes his head. “Or a disaster.”

An assistant scurries over. Maestro has so many assistants, none of them visible but suddenly present when needed. I’m not sure what they do but this assistant, tall and slender, grey hair scraped back into a tight bun and dressed in a severe black pant suit, bends to confer with Maestro. They whisper, their heads nodding in unison.

Maestro looks up again. “Does the First Bassoonist have a … gripe?” he says. He grimaces, baring his teeth.

I place my bassoon on the empty chair beside me and stand up.

“No need to move from your spot, Second Bassoonist. You can speak from there.”

“It’s Bethany,” I say. “Bethany Thackeray.”

“Well, Mrs Thackeray -”

“Miss Thackeray,” I say. “It’s Miss.”

“Well, Second Bassoonist Miss Bethany Thackeray, is our First Bassoonist concerned that the three bassoons have been transcribed for two bassoons?” He smiles again.

I want to give Maestro the answer he seeks but I don’t have any answer he might want.

Bending, I pick up my bassoon from the First Bassoonist’s chair.

“The two bassoon parts demand dedicated lipwork and some nimble fingering,” Maestro adds. “But the requirements are not insurmountable.”

“I don’t know, Maestro,” I say, clutching my bassoon to my stomach.

“Would he prefer to be seated in front of the orchestra, as we are – after all – performing a bassoon concerto?”

“I really … don’t know, Maestro.” I sit down.

“Do you not communicate with him?”

I stand up. “We prefer to let the music speak for us, Maestro.”

I bob down again.

“We cannot continue with only one bassoonist!” Maestro growls.

A gathering sigh rises above the crowd and wafts against the ceiling. The assistant steps away from Maestro’s side, wringing her long hands.

“Is he simply a late-comer or will he be a no-show?” Maestro looks up at the ceiling. “Does the Second Bassoonist have any information for us?”

But the fresh white plaster and shiny steel beams yield him no answer.

My head drops and I stare at my shoes.

Tonight held such promise, too.

Finally, the opening of the New LaChute Cultural Center, five years after the old LaChute Cultural Center burned to the ground after a lightning strike.

The return of Maestro Minghinella after three years touring with the Barstow Opera.

A live public broadcast of the concert on Quonsettville’s community radio station WVOC 91.3FM.

And the first public performance in sixty-eight years of Dudley Donegal O’Day’s much-avoided Triple Bassoon Concerto (transcribed for two very busy bassoons, the second of which is me).

And I have lost ten pounds too, to fit into my favorite black concert blouse.

Maestro taps his baton on his music stand, then swivels to face the audience.

“What I am left wondering, dear audience, is will our First Bassoonist grace us with his presence tonight?” Maestro sighs. “And if not, where on this blessed earth is he?!”

%d bloggers like this: