humming softly to himself, arrived at San Francisco Airport's Gate
84 check-in counter at the same moment as a pale, harassed-looking
"You first," he smiled, stepping back.
"Are you sure?" She held up a thick, brown envelope. "I'm
checking in 122 people."
"You're very persuasive," Allan said, handing his ticket
folder and photo ID to the ticket agent. He turned back to the woman.
"Is this a group tour or just a very big family?"
"Both. It's the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra. We finished
a concert tour in the Far East yesterday. If you can imagine how
grumpy any family would be after 19 cities in 21 days, you've got
the right idea."
"The harmony's gone?"
"Almost all of it. There's a rumor that two of the trumpeters
are still talking to each other, but it hasn't been confirmed."
The gate attendant, a short, blond man with an ill-advised mustache,
stamped a boarding pass, slipped it into Allan's ticket folder,
and returned it, along with the ID. "You'll be in Row 22, Seat
"You're taking the place of our top violinist," said the
woman with the envelope.
"Pardon?" Allan replied.
"For three weeks, 22B has been Jacob Elston's seat. Everyone
gets the same seat for the whole tour; it's less confusing that
way. But Jacob flew down to Los Angeles early this morning for some
recording work - on a film score, I think. You'll be sitting next
to his wife, Jessica, who is both a great cellist and the nicest
person in the whole orchestra. You'll enjoy talking to her."
From the concourse behind them, a heavily accented voice boomed,
"Has anyone seen one of our road managers? I'd trade them all
for a good horn player. Of course, I'd trade anything for a good
Out in the corridor stood a tall man with approximately 25 people
gathered around him. His hair, mustache, and goatee were all of
the same devil-red hue, giving him a commanding, almost forbidding
"Our fearless leader," the woman said without turning
to look. "He's had a case of the sniffles and probably wants
"A difficult man?" asked Allan.
"Miklós Jékely needs an extra seat just for his
"Who is he, your conductor?"
Her weary expression eased into a half-smile. "Miklós
would be devastated to hear that someone on his planet doesn't know
Allan shrugged. "I like jazz - Ellington, Beiderbecke, Miles
Davis. I'm afraid that Beethoven, Mozart, and all the rest of them
just sound the same to me."
Her smile broadened. "Would you mind coming over and saying
that to Miklós? In front of his adoring fans? It would be
the highlight of my year!"
"Thanks for the offer, but I've learned to let sleeping dogs
"Too bad. He throws great tantrums - some of the best I've
Allan regarded the famous conductor and realized that there was,
in fact, something familiar about him. That was how fame worked,
Allan thought, someone's image is recycled through newspapers, magazines,
and television until anonymity becomes awareness, then recognition,
and finally fame. The familiar stranger - another product of the
Boarding began a few minutes later, and Allan found himself sitting
next to a woman who offered a sweet smile as he sat down. Jessica
Elston, slender with light-brown hair that just brushed her shoulders,
had a calm, untroubled face. If Allan hadn't already heard about
her, he might have guessed that she was an attractive grade-school
teacher on vacation.
Thirty minutes later, after the plane reached its cruising altitude
of 33,000 feet, several passengers got up to walk around the cabin,
including a pear-shaped man with white hair who stopped next to
"Good luck tomorrow, Jessica."
She looked up. "Thanks, John."
"You'll be the best player at the audition - no one has a sound
like yours. 'Jékely-and-Hyde' ought to be begging you to
take over first chair."
"You don't have any incriminating photos I can use, do you?"
"I wish I did, but regardless of who he chooses, you deserve
"That's kind of you to say, John."
"It's the truth," he replied, and moved down the aisle.
Jessica glanced at Allan. "We're all part of an orchestra,"
she offered in explanation.
"The Philadelphia Symphony, I was told." He related some
of what he'd learned at the check-in counter. "But there's
something I don't understand: If you're already in the orchestra,
why are you auditioning?"
"Our principal cellist is retiring, and the auditions are to
decide who replaces him." She paused and, not receiving a nod
of understanding from her seatmate, continued, "The principal
cellist gets all the solos and is recognized as the best player
in that section."
"Then I hope you get the job."
"But, from what your friend said, you must have a pretty good
"No," she said simply, "in truth, I have no chance
at all. Miklós doesn't pick women for the principal chairs."
"How can he do that?"
"The judging at auditions is totally subjective, and his opinion
is the only one that's important." Her tone was matter-of-fact,
but there was a trace of something else in her voice. "Miklós
can claim that someone else's bow work is crisper, that their fingerwork
is better, or that they have a richer vibrato."
"Isn't there someone you can complain to?"
"No. We're the serfs in Miklós' kingdom."
(End of Exerpt)