“Nobody Looks at the Bass Player,” Ensign, Mar. 1974, 55
Since Mindy turned 13 I have learned that the unexpected is to be expected, so when she arrived home from an early morning roadshow rehearsal surrounded by an aura of dejection I tried to hold back my questions. She came into the house silently and stood in front of the large mirror in our entry hall, peering gloomily at her reflection.
“Aaaaargh,” she said. I know that sound well, a nonword, a gargle that Mindy uses to express hopelessness, resignation, utter despair. It said, “I need help,” but I knew from past experience that she would tell me what was bothering her when she was ready. Any probing at this particular time would probably bring on tears, perhaps hysterics, at best a blank look.
“Hi, Mindy,” was all I said.
Her response was a spiritless “Hi, Mother,” after which she went to her room and soon I heard her playing her big bass violin. When she is troubled she seems to draw comfort from sawing out doleful dirges on that huge, gruff instrument. She has even named it. Boris, she calls it. Boris the Bass.
I wondered what had caused the complete reversal of her mood, since she had left the house earlier in a state of high anticipation, looking forward to her first opportunity to take part in a roadshow. I didn’t remember such mercurial changes in her two older sisters, but then Liz and Margo had been close together in age and temperament; and they had seemed to breeze through early adolescence with giggles and shared secrets, while I was occupied getting Mindy through measles and kindergarten.
As I listened to Boris’ complaints, I wondered again if we had done the right thing—Dan and Mindy and I—in moving to a new city at such a crucial time in Mindy’s life, a time when she had seemed to go to bed one night as a happy child and awaken the next morning as a tall, confused, unfamiliar teenager. It hadn’t been an easy decision.
When we discovered that Dan’s long-awaited promotion depended on our moving, we agonized over leaving the friends we had lived among for so long. Strangely enough, it was Mindy who had cast the most positive vote for the move. It appeared that she even welcomed going to a new place. But evidently things were not working out as well as she had hoped.
I was at work organizing kitchen drawers, something I hadn’t gotten around to in the month we’d been there, when Mindy was ready to talk. She came in and stood beside me, sighing deeply.
I went to her and put my arm around her waist, astonished as I am so often these days that I have to look up to her.
“Something went wrong at the roadshow rehearsal,” I said. I have found that a statement is usually better than a question in getting Mindy started.
Mindy sighed. “Everything went wrong. Not with the rehearsal. With me.”
She pulled gently away from me and went to the chalkboard we had put up by the telephone. When we had first arrived she had written there, “A new place means a fresh start.” Now she erased that and wrote, “13 is a foreign country.”
She turned to me, then, and said, “Look at me, Mother. Just look at me.”
I looked. I saw a tall young girl with long, straight blonde hair. The gray-green eyes behind round, gold-rimmed glasses were clear but troubled. When she opened her mouth I caught a glimpse of the expensive hardware recently installed by the orthodontist.
Her own inventory differed a little from mine. “Five feet eight inches tall,” she said. “Four eyes. A mouthful of wires. Mousy hair.” She sighed. “Thirteen years old and new in town.” The last two items she said as if they were the proverbial straws that broke the long-suffering camel’s back.
What could I say? That her hair was lovely when it was clean and brushed? That the braces would come off eventually? That certainly 13 was not a forever state of being?
I had plenty of advice to offer. After all, hadn’t I been through all this with Liz and Margo, now well-adjusted young women, who were away for the summer working between college semesters? Wasn’t I 13 once myself?
The trouble was, it was all new territory for Mindy. One person’s 13 is never exactly like another person’s 13, anyway.
“Just look at me,” Mindy whispered again.
“I’m looking,” I said. “I see a very attractive girl.”
Mindy’s voice was soft but dramatic. “You see a clown.”
“Is that bad?” I said. I recalled the wisecracks, the high-pitched giggle, the outrageous antics Mindy had affected since we moved to the new city, all totally unlike her. I would have said she wanted to be a clown.
“It’s bad when you’re a failure at being a clown,” Mindy said. She plopped onto a kitchen chair. “That was going to be my new image here. A clown. Funny, funny Mindy.”
“What was wrong with your old image?” I asked. “I liked that Mindy just fine.”
“Aaaaargh,” Mindy said. She was silent for a moment, then she said, “That Mindy was a bomb. A nothing. Who needed her? I thought when I came here I could start out being something people would like.”
So that was why she had looked forward to the move. That was what she meant by “A new place means a fresh start.”
“Remember Neola Bradford back home?” Mindy continued. “She’s as homely as a plucked chicken, but she’s the most popular girl in town because she’s funny. A laugh a minute.”
That explained many things. Evidently Mindy had planned to descend on this new place as a Neola Bradford, the life of the party, so no one would notice what she felt were her drawbacks. I wanted to say, “Oh, Mindy, what’s wrong with just being yourself?” but I decided it wasn’t the time. She was trying to rediscover her true “self.” I wondered how many other personalities she had tried on before she selected Neola’s.
Mindy cleared her throat. “I was going to be like Neola. It went pretty well at first. The kids here laughed at the jokes I’d memorized. When I ran out of jokes I just started acting crazy. They laughed at that, too, but I got the impression they thought I was some kind of freak.” She shook back her hair and stared out of the window. “In the roadshow the Beehives are supposed to do a dance, and when I was trying to learn it today they laughed at me.” Her face was tragic. “I wasn’t even trying to be funny.”
I thought I understood. As long as she was Neola Bradford, they were supposed to laugh, but when she was Mindy Maxfield it hurt. The kids couldn’t be blamed. They didn’t know she was playing two roles.
I took a deep breath, meaning to launch into a list of platitudes about how she should face up to it, grin and bear it, keep the chin up, but she held up a hand.
“Please, Mother,” she said. “No lectures. I’m not going to be in the roadshow and I’ve already announced it. I told them dancing gives me the hives.” She sighed. “They laughed their heads off.”
Mindy got up and went to her room again, and it wasn’t long until I heard Boris’ melancholy mooing.
I talked things over with Dan that evening and we agreed that it was no use to push her no matter what we thought she was missing. It was something she’d have to work out for herself, even though it was painful for us to watch. Growing up is seldom easy, either for the child or the parents.
It was several days later that I received a telephone call from Sue Rogers, a lively young woman I had spoken with several times at church. After a minimum of preliminaries she said, “Barbara, can you sew?”
“I’m better at cleaning ovens,” I confessed.
“Well,” she persisted, “can you tell a needle from a noodle?”
I admitted that I could, most of the time.
“Just the person we need,” she declared. “Will you be on the costume committee for the roadshow?”
I thought that over, to the accompaniment of the sad refrain Mindy was coaxing from Boris. If I became involved in the roadshow, maybe I could get Mindy to go with me to rehearsals. If she went to rehearsals, maybe she would get interested in being in it again. If she was in it, maybe the real Mindy Maxfield would show up and the young people would recognize her for what she was—a nice, sensible, warm, and friendly girl.
“I guess I can help,” I told Sue Rogers before I had second thoughts about sewing costumes and backed out.
“I knew you would,” Sue said. There was a pause, then she said, “Is that dying buffalo in the background what I think it is?”
“If you think it’s Mindy playing her string bass, then it’s what you think it is,” I said.
Sue’s voice was excited. “Is Bill Radley ever going to be glad to hear that! He’s directing the music for the roadshow, you know, and he needs a string bass for the combo he’s putting together. He’s combed the ward for one. Is he ever going to be glad to hear Mindy plays the string bass!”
Still marveling, Sue hung up after saying she’d tell Bill Radley. I didn’t tell Mindy what Sue had said because I didn’t want her to build up resistance. Even so, she was suspicious when Brother Radley called that night. From her end of the conversation I gathered that she agreed to do it, but when she hung up she faced me squarely.
“Did you arrange to have Brother Radley call me, Mother,” she asked, “just to get me involved again?”
“No,” I said, making an X on my chest. “Cross my heart.” How sensitive the young are, I thought. And how desperately they want to be needed, but only for the right reasons.
Boris went with Mindy and me to the next roadshow rehearsal even though Mindy was having misgivings. “They’ll laugh when I come in with this big thing,” she said. “They’ll think it’s just another crazy stunt.”
A couple of them did laugh at first. “Hey, Mindy,” yelled a red-haired boy. “Where’d you get the big ukulele?”
When Mindy failed to come back with a snappy answer, he didn’t say any more. A few other people cast puzzled glances Mindy’s way as if expecting her to do something, but when she didn’t they turned their attention back to the rehearsal. Mindy hid behind her music stand and concentrated on learning the notes Brother Radley had written out for her.
For the next several rehearsals I was involved with costume sketching and the cutting of cloth to distribute to the girls who were sewing their own costumes, but I had time to observe that the Mindy who lurked behind Boris was not the real Mindy Maxfield any more than the clownish one had been. At least it wasn’t the Mindy I had known. This one was silent to the point of moroseness, communicating only with the other musicians and then only when necessary.
One day when we got home from a rehearsal, she erased “13 is a foreign country” from the chalkboard and scribbled, “Nobody looks at the bass player.”
The roadshow was a sparkling, fast-moving little gem, and the cast members were so sure they would take top place in the stake competition that they rehearsed with vast enthusiasm. Since enthusiasm is contagious, eventually even Mindy was infected by it. I began to have hopes for her the night the Beehives performed their dance perfectly for the first time and Mindy called out, “That was groovy.” Her classmates beamed their appreciation. Later at home she said, “Our show is even better than the ones Liz and Margo used to be in,” and I took special note of that word “our.”
But the long hours of rehearsal brought about an unexpected problem. Although Mindy had been playing Boris off and on all summer, it hadn’t been enough to keep the tips of her fingers toughened. She developed blisters not only on the fingers of her left hand that held down the strings but also on two fingers of her right since she was plucking the strings rather than using the bow.
Mindy was resigned. “I should have known I’d get shot down,” she said. “I wish we’d never moved here.” It was just two days before the dress rehearsal and she called Brother Radley to tell him she couldn’t play in the combo. “Don’t tell the kids why,” she added.
“He said it won’t be the same without me,” she said when she hung up. “But he’s just saying that. The roadshow’s not going to fall apart just because I’m not there. It’s not as if I was onstage where I’d be missed.” There was a wistful look in her eyes.
She couldn’t stand to stay away from the next rehearsal, but she remained in the back of the hall by the tables where Sue and I were making last-minute costume adjustments. I saw her foot tapping when the music started.
It wasn’t until they got to the finale that any of the cast members really noticed there was anything different about the combo. A tall boy kept making mistakes in the dance routine, and the director said patiently, for the third time, “You’re supposed to lead off with the left foot, Phil, not the right.”
“Where’s that bass player?” Phil said in an exasperated voice. “I can’t keep my feet sorted out without that bass thumping out the beat.”
See, honey, I felt like shouting to Mindy. Maybe nobody looks at the bass player, but someone sure has been listening.
Mindy just sat there looking at her raw fingers and saying nothing. When we got home she rubbed out “Nobody looks at the bass player” and in its place carefully wrote, “Somebody has to make the music for those on stage.”
It wasn’t until the next afternoon, just before the dress rehearsal, that she told me what she was going to do.
“I’ll tape my fingers,” she said. “If I put about two or three layers of tape on them they’ll hardly hurt at all.”
At first I didn’t think anyone noticed either Mindy or her taped fingers. Everyone was in top form that night. The cast, the combo, the stage crew, everybody worked together like a precisioned but warm, living machine. Each one did his own job, and each knew that without him the show would sag, if only just a little. Their spirits were high, and I knew that it wouldn’t matter at all whether or not they won the stake competition. They were going to put on a splendid show, and that was what mattered.
I could see that Mindy’s fingers hurt even through the wrappings of tape, but she played as she had never played before. She knew that up there on stage was at least one person who needed the strong beat of her big fiddle in order to do his best, and she was going to see that he heard it. Boris’ voice was no longer gruff and melancholy, but was instead rich and vibrant.
I was proud of Mindy. She had considered the facts, drawn a conclusion, made a decision, and was now carrying through with it without any real recognition. As far as she was concerned, nobody looked at the bass player.
But they did. When the rehearsal was over, the entire cast came to the front of the stage to applaud the combo, then singled out Mindy for a little extra burst of applause. They had noticed she was there, all right, and they had seen the tape, but they didn’t embarrass her by praising her small heroism. Instead they made jokes.
“Hey,” Phil called, “this has been music to build blisters by.”
“We’ll call it ‘Symphony for Sore Fingers,’” another boy said.
They were giving recognition to something they admired more than mere beauty, more than wittiness, and that was good sportsmanship and loyalty.
“Bring your big boyfriend to the cast party tomorrow night,” a girl said. “We need him.”
“His name is Boris,” Mindy said, and taking her bow she drew it across the strings in such a way that the big fiddle seemed to be saying, “My name is Boris.”
The group laughed, and this time they were laughing not at Mindy, the clown, but with Mindy, the girl who could respond to people with warmth and humor. I had a feeling that although certainly all the problems were not solved, Mindy and Boris would be part of this happy group. The real Mindy had found friends. From now on my role would be to provide background music as Mindy worked out the drama of her life, music compounded of love, encouragement, and moral support.
When we got home I stopped in front of the big mirror in our entry hall and addressed my reflection. “Well, that crisis is over,” I said. “I wonder what the next one will be.”
I peered into the mirror. Peering back at me was a woman who quivered on the brink of middle age, one whose eyes would soon need bifocals, one whose teeth were silvered with fillings. She wasn’t too tall, but she was definitely a little overweight. Was that the real Barbara Maxfield? When had it happened?
“Aaaaaargh,” I said.